Ground beef, romaine lettuce, cilantro, Anaheim peppers, granola nut clusters, alfalfa sprouts and a seeming host of products featuring nonfat dry milk, including yogurt, chai tea, shake mixes, frosting packets, drink powders and cocoa, gravy and sauce mixes -- all have been recalled in the last two months because of possible salmonella contamination.

The year’s earlier, massive recall of peanut products, one of the largest in history, may have faded from the headlines and public consciousness, but the organism responsible for that recall hasn’t been banished from the processes we use to grow, manufacture and distribute food. Nor will it be.

Some of the damage will be relatively contained -- one lot of cilantro here, a couple of types of frosting packets there, all recovered before illness is reported. But sometimes consumers will become ill, as happened this past week with beef from a packinghouse in Fresno. It could just be a matter of time before the next widespread contamination. Even if salmonella isn’t responsible, another organism may be. E. coli O157:H7 is a frequent culprit (responsible for large-scale spinach and beef recalls and, earlier this summer, cookie dough), as is Listeria (responsible for usually smaller recalls of cheese and produce).


Against that end, federal policymakers and regulators are assessing how best to improve the nation’s food supply.

Late last month, the House passed a bill that would overhaul U.S. food safety laws, increasing the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to inspect food manufacturers, requiring it to craft a better way of tracing food-borne illnesses and giving it greater recall powers. Farmers and food processors would be required to do their part as well. The Senate is expected to consider a similar measure after its August recess.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA are forging ahead on their own. The former will ramp up inspections of ground beef components in an effort to protect against E. coli contamination. The latter has announced guidelines meant to ensure the safety of tomatoes, leafy greens and melons.

The hurdles are enormous. Food-borne illnesses have always been with us, but outbreaks of food poisoning are no longer confined to a select few who ate improperly cooked antelope or who chose unwisely at the company picnic. The sheer complexity of modern food production gives the bacteria responsible for food-borne illnesses almost infinitely greater range.

To showcase just how much work is ahead, we take a closer look at the organism responsible for this year’s recall of peanut products, plus the recent recalls of beef and other foods.

See page E6 for the science of salmonella.

-- Health staff