E. Coli Outbreaks Have Industry, Government Increasing Safety

January 3, 2007

In light of food poisoning outbreaks involving spinach and lettuce, the government and the produce industry are scrambling to make leafy greens safer before the spring planting season.

New guidelines from the industry are due in April on how to prevent contamination throughout the food chain, from before greens are planted until they reach the dinner table.

Members of Congress are asking federal agencies to report on what went wrong and how to fix the problem. Some lawmakers want to replace the patchwork system of federal food regulation with a single agency in charge of what people eat.

States are active, too.

The head of Iowa’s Department of Inspections and Appeals is pushing state lawmakers to strengthen the state’s food inspection laws amid a recent E. coli outbreak at Taco John’s restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota.

Steve Young, the agency’s director, said the state’s food code has not been updated since 1997. He wants the state to adopt the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2005 food code, which contains updated recommendations dealing with norovirus, food allergens and other issues.

In California, where most of the nation’s green leafy vegetables are grown, farmers are poised to approve new labeling by March for farms that follow stricter practices for raising greens.

In New Jersey, where small family farms were hurt by a nationwide spinach ban right at the start of September’s harvest, the state has set up a task force to improve produce safety.

“This whole issue has gathered significant momentum in light of the recent outbreaks,” said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for food safety at the Food and Drug Administration.

The E. coli outbreak linked to lettuce sickened dozens of people who ate at the Taco John’s restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota in early December and prompted at least two lawsuits against the eatery. E. coli also affected people who ate at Taco Bell outlets along the East Coast.

The spinach outbreak this year killed three people and sickened more than 200. In addition, two salmonella outbreaks blamed on tomatoes made about 400 people sick in October and November.

The number of foodborne illness outbreaks generally has declined over the past decade. Still, greens are especially vulnerable to outbreaks because they tend to be eaten raw — proper cooking kills E. coli and other bugs — and grow close to soil, which may hold manure-based fertilizer that can contaminate the produce.

Many states probably will attempt improvements before the spring planting season, said Bob Ehart, spokesman for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

“The states that we’ve had conversations with are all very concerned about the issue and are looking at it,” Ehart said.

Since September, two produce industry groups that together represent thousands of U.S. growers, processors, distributors, restaurants and supermarkets have worked to hasten revised guidelines for preventing contamination of leafy greens.

The goal is to tell farmers, before spring planting, and then consumers about the new safety guidelines.

“I think we have to show the consuming public as well as government officials that we can manage this,” said Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association.

Jim Gorny, head of food safety at the other group, the United Fresh Produce Association, said irrigation water is a focus.

“What industry’s doing now is a very deep soul-searching in making sure no risk is left unchecked,” he said.

The industry is pushing for voluntary changes and not more government regulation, Gorny said.

Since the spinach outbreak in September, lawmakers in Congress have pushed to put one agency in charge of food safety, require regular inspection of processing plants and give the government authority to do food recalls.

Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said “chances just got better” because there is broad support for these measures among Democrats who will take control of Congress this month.

The FDA started work on new safety recommendations in 2004 and has come up with voluntary guidelines for the vegetables that cause more than 80 percent of outbreaks from produce. They are lettuce and leafy greens, tomatoes, green onions, herbs and cantaloupes.

As outbreaks have continued, the agency has looked for more ways to prevent them and respond more quickly. But that effort has been slowed while agency staff was diverted to handle the latest outbreaks.

“Obviously, up to this point things have not worked as well as they should have,” Acheson said.

Consumer groups say things have not worked well because of inadequate money and staffing at FDA.

Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, said putting one agency in charge of food safety would be a big improvement.

“It’s regulatory chaos” now, Kimbrell said.

The Bush administration opposes the idea, saying it is unnecessary.

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