E. coli cases prompt calls to regulate farm practices

Even as investigators track the source of tainted spinach, consumer groups seek more FDA authority over farms.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The quest continued over the weekend to pinpoint the source of E. coli bacteria that has tainted fresh or packaged spinach, even as some consumer groups called for greater federal authority to regulate farming practices.

Over the weekend, federal health officials expanded their initial Sept. 13 warning not to eat bagged spinach to include any fresh, raw spinach. As of late Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 102 cases of E. coli exposure in 19 states since Aug. 2, including one death in Wisconsin.

In looking hard at America's regulation of food handling from farms to dinner tables, the process generally gets high marks – and has been improved in recent years to reduce the risk of bioterrorism, experts say. But this latest incident, taken with earlier reports of E. coli contamination in greens, exposes a glaring weakness, they add: effective health standards and cleanliness enforcement on the farm itself.

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Consumer watchdogs hope the more-frequent appearance of E. coli in leafy vegetables will finally cause Congress to expand the reach of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to farms.

"We think this incident shows the FDA is suffering from the same weak-kneed approach that they had before they were given more power to regulate beef in the 1990s" after several outbreaks of E. coli were linked to ground beef, says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "No one is really in charge of food safety on the farm, and the FDA has come in with fairly weak guidelines there that they can only suggest but not enforce. They need direction from Congress to address standards on the farm."

Scientists say E. coli bacteria live in the intestines of cattle and other animals and are passed to plants through contact with fecal matter. Produce could become contaminated several ways: manure used for fertilizer, fecal runoff into streams that are used for farm irrigation, or even droppings from birds that had swallowed manure. As a result, stricter FDA oversight is needed at sites where produce is grown, many observers say. Currently, FDA enforcement authority begins in the packaging facilities where produce is washed and packaged for transport.

The exposure "could come from literally dozens of sources, and it may be awhile before they identify them," says Ron Gaskill, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. In any case, rules and practices expanded in recent years should allow the investigation to go faster than in previous years.

Mr. Gaskill and several others say US standards known as the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point system will allow officials to pinpoint the source of the tainted spinach. The laws require each handler in the food chain – from picker to processor, washer, packager, and transporter – to log who they received the food from and who they gave it to.

"We are doing a far greater job than in past years in being able to trace where food has come from and gone to," says Gaskill. Several years ago, US health officials traced tainted strawberries to Mexico and shut down a processing plant until standards were met. And in 2002, Congress tightened regulations even further, out of concerns about bioterrorism.

The E. coli presence in spinach may have escaped notice in part because, unlike other contaminants, it can be difficult to detect and a little can cause much harm to humans, scientists say.

"Even after processing and washing, sorting and quality searching, it is still possible for just a few cells to survive," says Luke LaBorde, associate professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University.

"It might be that the FDA now sees it is time to come up with new standards for the farm," he says. But enforcement would be difficult, he acknowledges.

"The FDA regulatory authority begins with processing, which is industrial and is a whole different ball of wax," says Dr. LaBorde. "But growing is not covered under the laws and regulations. Given our manpower, how could it be done given the wide distribution of farms?"

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