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What Poisoned Pomegranates Tell Us About Food Safety

The label for the berry blend recalled in June because of pomegranates linked to a hepatitis A outbreak.
Food and Drug Administration
The label for the berry blend recalled in June because of pomegranates linked to a hepatitis A outbreak.

Imported food is getting the kind of attention these days that no product wants. Health officials in Iowa and Nebraska are blaming salad greens for making hundreds of people sick with a parasite called cyclospora. That parasite usually comes from the tropics, so it's likely the salad did, too. Earlier this summer, pomegranate seeds from Turkey were linked to an outbreak of hepatitis A.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced a plan to prevent such problems. Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said that the hepatitis outbreak showed exactly why new rules are needed. "That sort of incident is exactly the sort of problem that this new system is intended to address," he said.

But the case of the poisoned pomegranates actually teaches a more complicated lesson: That safety systems, however helpful, are not foolproof.

The outbreak began in the spring and mainly affected consumers in Western states. Michael Walters, who lives in Foxfield, Colo., first felt symptoms while visiting Yellowstone in late May.

Walters had been on a health kick. He was eating superfoods: smoothies made from spinach, kale and avocado. To add a bit of sweetness, he added some frozen berries — a product called Organic Antioxidant Blend — that he picked up at Costco. "I was really loading up on what I thought were very healthy, natural kinds of foods," he says.

The disease hit with a feeling of overwhelming fatigue. Walters didn't know it yet, but more than 100 other people were getting it, too. And investigators found a link between them. They'd all bought that frozen berry mix.

Costco recalled the product. Walters' daughter saw the warning on the Internet and called her sick father. "We went online to the Costco website. They had a picture of the product," recalls Walters. "We went to our freezer. There was the bag!"

Walters ended up in the hospital for four days. Today, two months later, he's still trying to get his strength back.

In that bag of frozen berries, only one thing came from a part of the world where you find this strain of hepatitis A: pomegranate seeds from Turkey.

So how will the FDA's new rules try to prevent this sort of thing? FDA officials describe their proposal as a fundamental shift in approach. Instead of just trying to catch contaminated food at the border, they'll require safety checks throughout the supply chain, all the way back to the fields and orchards overseas.

If the rules go into effect, U.S. companies that import food will be legally required to show proof that their foreign suppliers are operating just as safely as suppliers in the U.S. "It really boils down to expecting our importers to know their supplier, to know the food and its potential hazards, and to verify that preventive steps had been taken to minimize those hazards," says the FDA's Taylor.

But here's the twist in the pomegranate story: The companies that imported the pomegranates apparently were doing exactly this already.

Costco requires that its suppliers are audited for safety by outside experts. So does Townsend Farms, the Oregon company that actually packed the berry mix. And the Turkish processing plant that handled these pomegranates was following the rules of an international code of safety called GMA-SAFE.

Les Bourquin, a professor of food science at Michigan State University, has encountered GMA-SAFE frequently while working with food companies in foreign countries, helping them to develop food safety systems. He says that this certification generally satisfies the FDA's demands. "It may not hit all the points of the new requirements, but it would be close," he says.

Bourquin says we don't know yet exactly how this contamination happened — whether the safety rules weren't good enough or whether somebody broke the rules.

But it's a reminder that it's really hard to guarantee safety in a system that stretches from pomegranate orchards in Turkey to your local grocery store. "Failures do occur, even in good companies that are doing a very good job," he says.

Still, Bourquin says, the FDA's proposed rules will have a big impact, especially on companies that have not been insisting on safety audits at their foreign suppliers. "There are companies that don't do this," he says. The FDA rules "will make some companies take it much more seriously." Even companies that are carrying out safety audits and testing, Bourquin says, like the plant in Turkey, can always find ways to do it even better.

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Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.