Running on Fumes in Beijing

By Gina Kolata, The New York Times, Olympic Coverage – It was a hot, humid, oppressive Thursday night, but my running group was ready to go. Jen Davis, one of the regulars, had mapped out a hilly eight-and-a-half-mile course in Princeton, N.J., and nine of us set out, trying to ignore the steamy weather.

I had a hard time. My legs felt heavy and I just could not get going. Along with five others in the group, I ended up cutting the run short, avoiding the last couple of miles. And that’s something I almost never do.

When I got home, I called my coach, Tom Fleming, to tell him what happened.

“I have just one word for you,” Tom said. “Beijing.”

Yes, I’m going. I’ll be part of the New York Times reporting team. And yes, I intend to run when I’m in China. I’ll even have a training schedule and will e-mail my results to Tom and talk to him via Skype.

One running partner, if our plans work out, will be Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners. She hopes to run for an hour at least every other day, if not more often.

“I’m going in there optimistic,” she said. “How bad can it be?”

Still, it gives me pause that the United States’ track and marathon athletes are not arriving in Beijing until the last minute. They’re training in Dalian, a comparatively pollution-free city north of Beijing, where they can get accustomed to the time zone and heat. They won’t even try to be out there breathing the Beijing air every day while sweating in the intense heat and humidity.

And it is hard to dismiss the cautionary tales. Tom Fleming, who won the New York Marathon in 1973 and 1975, is an experienced runner and coach. He was in Beijing twice, in 1991 and 1994, both times as coach for the United States women’s ekiden team. In ekiden, a relay race popular in Asia, runners cover various distances to equal a marathon distance of 26.2 miles.

The ekiden races were in March, so heat and humidity were not severe, Tom said, but the pollution had him worried. “What I noticed was that my white shirt was gray,” he said. “That’s when I said, ‘Holy crow.’ You know it can’t be good.

“Let me know if you see any Chinese people running,” he added. “I never saw anyone.”

That’s because ordinary Beijing residents almost never run on the streets where Tom was running.

Running, it turns out, is not a sport for most people in China. And when they do run, their style is, to Western eyes, a bit unusual. Joseph Kahn, a deputy foreign editor for The Times who just returned from five years as Beijing bureau chief, said athletics in China was mostly confined to sports academies that train young people to be Olympians. Otherwise, exercise takes place in the morning in parks, where people do yoga and tai chi and run backward, which they think helps with balance.

“Rarely do people run on the streets, but not never,” he said.

Some athletes who have competed in Beijing said they were defeated by the conditions there.

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, a mountain biker, entered a race in Beijing last September. He started coughing soon after the race began, and his coughing fits were so severe that he had to drop out halfway through. Almost everyone had trouble, he said, with only 8 of 50 cyclists finishing the race.

Still, you can avoid the worst of one pollutant, ozone, by running in the morning. Levels peak at midday. And there is some evidence that you can develop tolerance to ozone over a five-day period, said Kenneth W. Rundell, director of respiratory research and the human physiology laboratory at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa.

Added to the air pollution is the pollen. The Chinese government has warned that August is pollen season, and counts are expected to be high. I’m bringing over-the-counter pills containing the decongestant pseudoephedrine, a drug that is banned for Olympians under antidoping regulations but is legal for non-Olympians like me.

But Randall L. Wilber, a senior sports physiologist at the United States Olympic Training Center, told me that heat and humidity would take a bigger toll. “We’re actually focusing very, very heavily on heat and humidity as opposed to air pollution,” he said.

Endurance athletes who exercise in heat and humidity can become acclimated in about two weeks. The body adjusts by increasing the plasma volume, making it easier for the heart to pump blood to muscles and to the skin, for cooling. In addition, when you are acclimated, sweating starts sooner and the sweat is more profuse and more diluted.

But athletes — and others who try to exercise — will be affected by heat and humidity even if they are acclimated. And they may also feel the effects of pollution in Beijing, Dr. Wilber said.

He should know. He visited Beijing several times in preparation for the Olympics, and while there he did runs of 40 to 45 minutes.

“I’ve never been there when the air quality was good for more than 24 hours,” Dr. Wilber said. When he returned home, he coughed up phlegm, particularly after exercise. “It gradually worked its way out,” he said.

Dr. Wilber said he expects the air quality during the Olympics to be better than many anticipate. He is confident that the government’s pollution control measures will help.

I hope so. At least by running in the latest New Jersey heat wave, I should be as acclimated to heat and humidity as I can get. And when I run in Beijing, I’m going to try to abide by my coach’s advice. “The only advantage I had running in Beijing was that I did not try to maintain my same training schedule,” Tom told me.

If it is really hard to run or if it seems impossible to run as far as I’d planned, I hope I have the sense to cut a run short.

5EFECFD4-36F2-4292-B6CE-DC6CA07E9865.jpg
Connecting the dots: A Harvard researcher has translated genes (circles) into music by charting the relationship (lines) between them and determining key networks (red nodes). Each network is assigned a musical note.
Credit: Gil Alterovitz

Click here to listen to examples of gene-based music.

Converting genetic activity into music may be a way to monitor health

By Jennifer Chu, July 2008, MIT Technology Review – When set to music, colon cancer sounds kind of eerie. That’s the finding of Gil Alterovitz, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School who is developing a computer program that translates protein and gene expression into music. In his acoustic translation, harmony represents good health, and discord indicates disease.

At any given time in each of our cells, thousands of genes are churning out their molecular products while thousands more lie senescent. The profile of which genes are on versus off is constantly changing–with specific diseases such as cancer, for example.

Searching for a more simplified way to represent the complex library of information inherent in gene expression, Alterovitz decided to represent those changes with music. He hopes that doctors will one day be able to use his music to detect health-related changes in gene expression early via a musical slip into discord, potentially improving a patient’s outcome.

The first step in the gene-to-sound conversion was to pare down multiple measurements to a few fundamental signals, each of which could be represented by a different note. Together, the notes would form a harmonic chord in normal, healthy states and become increasingly out of tune as key physiological signs go awry, signaling disease.

Alterovitz employed mathematical modeling to determine relationships between physiological signals. Much like the various systems in an automobile, many physiological signs work in synchrony to keep a body healthy. “These signals [are] not isolated parts,” says Alterovitz. “Like in a car, one gear is working with other gears to control, for example, power steering. Similarly, there are lots of correlations between physiological variables. If heart rate is higher, other variables will move together in response, and you can simplify that redundancy and information.”

Using data collected from a study of protein expression in colon cancer, Alterovitz analyzed more than three thousand related proteins involved in the disease. He whittled down the thousands of proteins to four key networks, using various genetic databases that catalog relationships between genes and proteins. He then assigned a note to each network, and together, these notes formed a harmonic chord. He compared the “music” of normal, healthy human data sets to that of the colon-cancer samples and found that, according to his model, colon cancer sounded “inharmonious.”

Researchers may be able to translate other diseases into music by “tuning” the system that Alterovitz has developed. For example, researchers can identify protein networks related to the disorder of interest and then assign notes that, in combination, form inharmonious chords, compared with their healthy counterparts.

He adds that the technique may have applications outside medicine, such as for simplifying information for air-traffic controllers, and in any other industry that requires analysis of large data sets. There is also an opportunity to use protein music purely for music’s sake: a DJ in the Boston area has expressed interest in playing Alterovitz’s “music” in local bars–a potential revenue stream for musician and mathematician alike.

http://www.technologyreview.com/Biotech/21094/?nlid=1225

Go here for, gene based music

By Alex Berenson, August 5, 2008, The New York Times – Can Byetta, an injectable drug that lowers blood sugar, really help people with diabetes to live longer?

Possibly, according to the results of a major clinical trial presented at the American Diabetes Association annual conference. In the trial, called Accord, patients with Type 2 diabetes were prescribed Byetta or any of several other diabetes medicines. Patients who took Byetta had a much lower chance of dying, about 75 percent lower, than those who took any other drug.

The finding, presented in June, has generated a stir among diabetes researchers, although so far it has attracted little public notice. Neither Eli Lilly or Amylin, the companies that jointly market Byetta, is publicizing the findings, in part because no one is sure whether the reduction in the death rate is real or a chance finding. Only about 825 patients in the 10,000-patient Accord trial took Byetta, and those who did were likelier to be healthier than other patients.

“We don’t know whether it’s the drug or the healthy participant,” said Dr. Michael Miller, professor of biostatistics at Wake Forest University and the lead statistician on the Accord trial.

The trial’s finding came as a surprise even to Lilly and Amylin, said Dr. James Malone, the global medical director of Byetta for Lilly.

“We were not aware of the results before they were presented at A.D.A., and I was sitting in the audience and my jaw just dropped,” Dr. Malone said. The trials that Lilly and Amylin have conducted on Byetta, have not shown a reduction in mortality in patients taking the medicine, but they were not intended to do so.

Although Byetta has been a moderate success in the market, with sales expected to reach about $700 million this year, prescriptions are short of what analysts had forecast when the medicine was introduced in 2005.

For the Accord finding to be proved, it must be tested in a large trial that would compare the cardiac health and overall death rates of thousands of patients, half receiving Byetta and half receiving a placebo. So far, Lilly and Amylin have not committed to undertaking such a trial, which would take years and cost tens of millions of dollars.

Further complicating the issue is that the two companies are working a reformulated version of Byetta, which could be injected once weekly instead of twice daily, and they may prefer to run the trial on the new medicine, which has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Malone said the two companies hoped to make a decision on holding a large mortality trial by the end of the year.

Even so, the finding adds to an emerging body of evidence that Byetta — the first in a new class of diabetes medicines called incretin mimetics — may work better than other diabetes medicines, at least for people who can tolerate its side effects, which can include severe nausea.

Byetta is less likely than other diabetes medicines to cause hypoglycemia, or dangerously low blood sugar. In addition, while most diabetes medicines cause patients to gain weight, patients on Byetta typically lose several pounds each year on the medicine. Weight gain is associated with cardiovascular problems, the most common causes of death for people with diabetes.

“My suspicion is that when you look at the determinants of mortality, which were weight gain and hypoglycemia in that study, Byetta would be the antimortality drug, because it’s associated with weight loss and less hypoglycemia,” said Dr. Alan Garber, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at Baylor.

In addition, animal trials offer some evidence that Byetta may directly benefit the heart, Dr. Malone said.

Byetta, generically called exenatide, is a synthetic version of a protein originally discovered in the venom of a lizard, the Gila monster. It encourages digestion and the production of insulin. Byetta is currently approved for use alongside other diabetes drugs, and Lilly and Amylin have asked the F.D.A. to approve it as a monotherapy as well.

When Byetta was introduced in 2005, prescriptions for it grew rapidly. But for the last year, Byetta prescriptions have been roughly flat at about 250,000 a month.

Doctors say that some patients cannot tolerate the nausea that Byetta can cause and others do not like injecting the medicine twice daily. Concerns about pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that can be fatal in rare cases, have also hurt the drug, although Byetta has not been proved to cause pancreatitis.

Dr. Joel Zonszein, an endocrinologist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, said some primary care doctors do not like to prescribe Byetta because they must teach patients how to give injections, a time-consuming process. “It is a drug that is difficult to prescribe,” Dr. Zonszein said.

Meanwhile, prescriptions for Januvia, a medicine in pill form from Merck that works in a somewhat similar way as Byetta, have taken off since Merck introduced it in October 2006. More than 500,000 patients a month are being given prescriptions for Januvia or Janumet, which combines Januvia with a second diabetes medicine in a single pill.

“Januvia has been effectively marketed in the primary care community,” said Dr. John Buse, vice chairman for the Accord study and professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “I think there is some misunderstanding about the relationship between Januvia and Byetta among primary care providers.”

Dr. Buse said that the data from Accord was intriguing but not enough to persuade him that Byetta could reduce deaths in diabetes patients.

“The number of patients in Accord that were treated with exenatide was a very small proportion of the total patients in Accord, and they got exenatide relatively late in the trial,” he said. He said he hoped Lilly and Amylin would decide to invest in the trial necessary to test Byetta’s effect on mortality.

“They need to do it,” he said.

On the front page of the Wall Street Journal’s (8/5, D1) Personal Journal section, Melinda Beck writes in the Health Journal column that “[m]eningococcal meningitis strikes” approximately “1,400 to 2,800 Americans a year…with terrifying speed and consequences,” as nearly “10 percent of victims die, often hours after symptoms set in.” Of those who survive, roughly 15 percent “are left with brain damage, hearing loss, or amputations” of gangrenous limbs. Although “the disease is largely preventable with a vaccine called Menactra,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just “12 percent of” adolescents between 11 and 18 “had received the vaccine” as of 2006, in part “because adolescents tend to steer clear of the doctor’s office.” Therefore, the “CDC is pushing the idea of an adolescent doctor visit to discuss…the meningitis vaccine, a diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis booster, and the human papillomavirus shot for girls.” Yet, some remain critical of vaccinations, particularly after “a handful” of recipients came “down with Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS)…after receiving Menactra.” But Paul Offit, of Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, said that individuals “have a 20-fold greater chance of getting meningococcal meningitis without the vaccine than of getting GBS from the vaccine.”

Fewer patients are undergoing in-depth treatment as antidepressants and other drugs are more widely used. The shift is attributed partly to insurance reimbursement policies

Should insurance companies dictate the treatment methods?

By Denise Gellene, August 5, 2008, Los Angeles Times – Wider use of antidepressants and other prescription medications has reduced the role of psychotherapy, once the defining characteristic of psychiatric care, according to an analysis published today.

The percentage of patients who received psychotherapy fell to 28.9% in 2004-05 from 44.4% in 1996-97, the report in Archives of General Psychiatry said.

Researchers attributed the shift to insurance reimbursement policies that favor short medication visits compared with longer psychotherapy sessions, and to the introduction of a new generation of psychotropic medications with fewer side effects.

Although not a surprise to many psychiatrists, the findings were expected to intensify a debate over the increased medicalization of psychiatric care, which in part reflects an emphasis on the biology of mental illness, as opposed to the processes of the mind.

Psychotherapy is an interpersonal intervention that may involve such things as behavior modification and group discussion. It is recommended — with or without medication — for major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric illnesses.

Besides psychiatrists, a range of mental health professionals not covered in the report also conduct psychotherapy, including psychologists, social workers and marriage counselors.

The study was based on data drawn from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, an anonymous survey of office-based physicians that tracks characteristics of patients and physicians, and records the diagnosis and treatment, during a typical week.

Researchers examined data on 14,108 psychiatric office visits during a 10-year period.

Psychiatrists who said they provided psychotherapy to all of their patients declined to 10.8% in 2004-05 from 19.1% in 1996-97, according to the report. Consistent with previous studies, researchers found that patients who paid out of pocket, generally the wealthiest patient group, were more likely to receive psychotherapy.

Financial incentives were weighted against psychotherapy, the report said. Reimbursement for a 45- to 50-minute outpatient psychotherapy session was 40.9% lower than reimbursement for three 15-minute medication management visits, the report said, citing a 2003 study. Anticipated changes in Medicare reimbursement are expected to bring payments into closer balance, experts said.

Also fueling the trend, according to the report, was the aggressive marketing of psychotropic medications to psychiatrists and patients. That push, for example, has helped make antidepressants one of the largest-selling classes of drugs.

Dr. Mark Olfson of Columbia University Medical Center, a study author, said patient attitudes might also be hastening the shift. Taking a pill may look a lot easier to patients than psychotherapy, which is more time-consuming and may involve the regular participation of family members.

The report found evidence of a cultural preference for psychotherapy in the Northeast, which Olfson said might be attributable to the influence of the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, whose faculties are strong proponents of psychotherapy.

Because the study looked only at psychiatrists, it couldn’t determine whether patients who needed psychotherapy were receiving it from other mental health providers or going without treatment, Olfson said.

Dr. William H. Sledge, interim chairman of the department of psychiatry at Yale, said the report was worrisome. Although training in psychotherapy is a standard part of psychiatric training, he said, the know-how is in danger of becoming lost.

“A group of practitioners is losing an important skill. It is like going to war with fewer weapons at your disposal,” Sledge said.

Dr. Alan F. Schatzberg, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and president-elect of the American Psychiatric Assn., said the trend was not necessarily bad. It could be seen as a natural evolution, similar to what is seen in other fields of medicine.

“Years ago, if someone had a herniated disk, they had a very complicated surgical procedure and were in traction for weeks,” he said. “Fields change. What we don’t want to do is decide treatment based on reimbursement.”

Amateurs Increasingly Turn to Drugs for an Extra Edge

By Laura S. Jones, August 5, 2008, The Washington Post – The International Olympic Committee will conduct 4,500 tests for performance-enhancing drugs at the Beijing Olympics this month. Good, you may think; they need to catch the drug cheats.

But what if that term applies to you and other weekend warriors?

Ridiculous? Maybe not, if performance-enhancing drugs include not only amphetamines, steroids and human growth hormone but also the common stimulants that experts and athletes say a growing number of people have begun using.

Endurance events have exploded in popularity, particularly among older athletes. Over the past four years, membership in USA Triathlon, the main sanctioning body for many triathlons and other multi-sport events, has doubled to 100,000; about seven times as many train for these events as take part in them. The number of Boston Marathon runners ages 40 to 59 has nearly tripled since 1997, to more than 10,000 this year, close to half the field.

And although the vast majority of participants compete for good health and fun, experts say a growing number are using painkillers, caffeine (in pill and standard liquid form), decongestants and asthma drugs to get an edge by increasing their energy and the flow of oxygen-carrying blood.

Because few amateur events test competitors for drugs, there are no hard data to back up these claims, but experts such as Charlottesville internist Martin Katz offer plenty of anecdotal evidence.

Katz says he gets requests for asthma inhalers from patients training for races who probably don’t need the drugs. An athlete himself, Katz usually gives these patients the benefit of the doubt, but when “the symptoms don’t sound typical,” he suggests the patient get tested for exercise-induced asthma.

Olwen Huxley, a USA Triathlon-certified coach, a former rower for the U.S. national team and multi-time Ironman finisher, says she’s seen an explosion in the number of inhaler devices left on the beach after the start of a triathlon’s swim stage.

“When you start feeling your age ,” says Huxley, “you are as subject to giving in to the allure of performance-enhancing drugs as an Olympic athlete.”

Ethics aside, the practice is risky. When combined and used to boost performance, sports doctors say, these stimulants can endanger health, particularly for older athletes.

“People have come into my office with cardiac arrhythmias caused by combining a Red Bull habit with Sudafed,” says New York internist Gary I. Wadler, who helps pick the drugs banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA. “Drugs are for medical conditions. Being an athlete is not a medical condition.”

Katz agrees. “The problem is that stimulants will elevate your heart rate, and combining them is a bad idea.”

One reason drug abuse might be more prevalent at all levels of sport than it was 30 years ago, says former University of Virginia head strength and conditioning coach Derek Laing, is that there are simply more drugs. So “when people reach the limits of their God-given talent, and they don’t want their dream to end there,” he says, it’s easy for them to explore what drugs can do for them.

An informal survey of four Internet sports forums (USMS.org, Slowtwitch.com, Letsrun.com and CuttingEdgeMuscle.com) showed a range of attitudes among amateur athletes.

Some posters freely offered advice on which drugs to take and when. Others spoke out vehemently against doping. But even among those who condemned the practice, many admitted to using caffeine and ibuprofen as performance boosters before and during races. (Caffeine, unregulated by WADA, is up for reconsideration as a banned substance, Wadler says.)

On the Letsrun.com forum, a poster asked, “Are there any performance-enhancing drugs that any recreational runner is able to pick up at a pharmacy w/out a prescription? Drugs that obviously aren’t meant for performance enhancing but are?” Replies a fellow poster: “Creatine [an over-the-counter dietary supplement and muscle builder], caffeine and other stimulants found in cold medicine, allergy medicine or weight loss pills.”

Those in search of a drug boost can get the ingredients from any convenience store. Or they can, as one poster on CuttingEdgeMuscle.com suggested: “Just tell a doc you tried Tramadol [a prescription opiate] for back pain and it worked great. Then take it with caffeine 30 minutes before a race for a big boost.”

Jim Clemmons, 57, a masters swimmer from Dublin, Calif., described his tamer formula in an e-mail interview: “One ibuprofen, one Red Bull, a caffeinated energy drink, and wash em down with a cup of coffee about 30 minutes before high intensity demand. Ready to go.”

Ed Hickey, 40, of Madison, Wis., says he and fellow cycling racers shrug off stimulant use. “I know lots of people who pop Sudafed to enhance their performance and pound Cokes and Red Bulls. ” Hickey notes that most of the benefit is probably psychological.

Race organizers have done little to combat the practice, but that may change. “Sport,” Wadler says, “should be a contest of character, not a contest of pharmacology.”

Dean Jagusch, 30, a coach and a former triathlete from Baltimore, says one of the big problems in triathlons is that you have amateurs racing beside pros. “They see what the pros are doing — No-Doz strapped to the bike, for example — or something worse. And they’ll follow their heroes.” And the sport’s headlines have been telling us lately that these heroes, at least some of them who competed last month in the Tour de France, definitely aren’t clean.

USA Triathlon is considering testing all athletes, pros and amateurs, who compete in its events. Skip Gilbert, executive director of the organization, says, “Given what you hear, you just don’t know. [Performance-enhancing drugs] are on our radar.”

Gilbert is mostly concerned about steroids, EPO (erythropoietin, a substance that boosts red blood cells’ oxygen-carrying capacity) and human growth hormone, drugs that have not only a reputation for improving athletic performance but also the potential for dangerous side effects. But he says stimulants might be included in testing as well.

Jagusch notes: “The whole amateur side of it, people take it too seriously. They think nothing of spending all their savings on equipment when all they need to do is train more and lose weight. Why wouldn’t these same people, looking for an edge, turn to drugs? It’s a Type A personality, where their goals are the be-all and end-all of their existence.”

Wadler agrees. “Absolutely, a 45-year-old who spends $10,000 on a bike will find a doctor who will help with a friendly diagnosis” to get a drug with performance-enhancing abilities, whether it is a stimulant or a steroid.

So will you have to produce a urine sample after your next triathlon or masters swimming race? Maybe.

But Jim Miller, past president of US Masters Swimming, national team physician for USA Swimming and a doping control officer for FINA (the international governing body of swimming), is doubtful that’s the answer.

“If you start drug testing in masters sports, you are as likely to catch a 75-year-old legitimately taking hormones for prostate cancer” as you are to find a steroid abuser, he says. He’s pushing instead for more education about ethics and health risks.

Charlottesville triathlete Travis Mawyer, who says he refuses to take performance-enhancing drugs, wishes more people thought about the ethics. In an e-mail, he wrote: “I do have a sense of morality, integrity and honesty which seems to take precedence over my desire to be a better athlete. That is not to say the thought [of taking Sudafed or getting an inhaler] hasn’t crossed my mind. I just let it slide on in, through and out of my mind.”

US tests never turned up one single domestic tomato with the Salmonella saintpaul bacteria

By Cindy Skrzycki, August 5, 2008, The Washington Post – While throwing a few rotten tomatoes at U.S. regulators might help ease growers’ pain, those involved in the latest salmonella epidemic would prefer cash for their trouble.

After weeks of implicating domestic tomatoes in an outbreak of Salmonella saintpaul, federal food-safety sleuths shifted the spotlight to jalapeño and serrano peppers grown in Mexico.

But before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted the tomato advisory July 17, U.S. tomato growers were left holding the shopping bag.

Growers said they lost $100 million in sales during the investigation, which they charge was conducted poorly and without enough consultation with them.

The growers knew the agency hadn’t gotten to the source of the problem after the FDA told people to stop eating tomatoes and the illnesses increased, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public policy for United Fresh Produce Association, an industry group in Washington.

Things got even more problematic for investigators when tests didn’t turn up a single domestic tomato with the bacteria.

The late reprieve for the industry shows how difficult it is to conduct international investigations of food-borne illnesses with limited resources and imperfect ways to trace a product back to its source.

At the same time, pressure has intensified to solve cases quickly and to pay for “mistakes” made.

Holding a tomato in one hand and a jalapeño in the other, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, pressed the FDA on whether the tomato was still a “vegetable of interest” or had been cleared.

David W.K. Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for food, responded at a July 31 hearing that no mistakes had been made and that tomatoes on the market were safe to eat.

The FDA said it followed the leads provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It found in early interviews with sick people that, overwhelmingly, they had eaten raw tomatoes in salsa or Mexican-style restaurant food.

The Salmonella saintpaul case began in May when federal and state investigators identified cases of the infection, which can cause serious illness and death, in New Mexico and Texas.

As the weeks passed, tomato growers became increasingly critical of the investigation.

It’s not feasible for growers to legally challenge the government for their losses — and the investigation isn’t yet over — but they hope Congress will help.

Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) is sympathetic to the $1.3 billion tomato industry, as are other members of the state’s delegation. He introduced a bill July 24 that would compensate growers and packers for losses up to $100 million. (Florida growers supply about half the nation’s fresh tomatoes annually.)

“There should be some compensation,” Mahoney said. “They have done nothing. They shouldn’t be held accountable. You have indicted an entire industry and left doubt that it’s okay to eat tomatoes.”

Bill Marler, a food-safety plaintiff attorney with Marler Clark in Seattle, said the push to exonerate tomatoes may be premature.

“Everyone empathizes,” Marler said of the industry’s losses. He cautioned that imperfect information may have implicated tomatoes, but “we would ask for their heads on a platter if it was tomatoes.”

There are other policy questions about penalizing agencies for their conclusions in the course of an investigation.

“You can’t have public health people fearing liability,” said Michael Taylor, a research professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health.

Taylor, who was a top food-safety official in the Clinton administration, suggested preventative measures and more efficient investigations.

”The government should mandate a set time period to provide answers to questions of where the produce came from,” he said.

Tomato growers think they have a case for compensation from Congress since they don’t qualify for other aid programs.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture runs crop-insurance programs that cover disasters from floods and hurricanes, but not crops ensnared in recalls.

Some companies have recall insurance, but they’re not likely to collect unless there is a recall — not a warning or an advisory.

This isn’t the first time produce growers looked to Congress for help with a food-safety issue.

Even though the 2006 bagged spinach recall involving Dole Food and Natural Selection Foods was more contained, growers took a $100 million hit, according to the United Fresh Produce Association.

Spinach growers got a financial-aid provision part way through Congress but didn’t succeed.

In March 1989, the U.S. banned the entry of seedless grapes from Chile after two grapes were found to have been contaminated with cyanide, leaving Chilean growers, exporters and importers with millions of dollars in losses. The industry tried to recover about $210 million only to get word four years later that a federal judge ruled that the FDA wasn’t responsible because it was doing its job.

“We got no compensation,” said Richard Eastes, a California fruit and vegetable consultant who worked for a company affected by the ban. “It was just a bad dream.”