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Latest leafy green recalls: A step-up in inspections in sight?

Lawmaker impatience is rising over voluntary industry effort to improve food safety.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2007

Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Luverne Tupac is sizing up the produce offerings at Ralfs supermarket here. "There's spinach, I'll pass that by. And there's lettuce. I'll skip that as well," she says.

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That consumer sentiment is back nationwide as two recalls of leafy greens in three weeks have made headlines, prompting renewed concerns about the safety and oversight of the American food chain.

On Tuesday, Dole Foods recalled packages of its "Hearts Delight" brand sold in Canada and nine US states after E. coli bacteria were found by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. On Aug. 28, Metz Fresh LLC recalled 8,000 cartons of bagged spinach distributed in the US and Canada after lab tests found salmonella. Neither case has included reports of anyone becoming ill from the products.

Coming almost exactly one year after E. coli contamination was blamed for the death of one citizen and the illness of others in 19 states, the latest incidents are renewing cries for mandatory oversight by the Federal Drug and Administration (FDA) of farms, food handlers, processors, and distributors in the US. Recent incidents of poison in fish, food, and other products from China have raised interest in how the US screens and regulates food coming from abroad.

"Dole was on TV in California this spring saying they had a computer chip in each box that would allow them to trace a head of lettuce to a 30-foot by 50-foot space within a field, yet here we are days into a recall impacting industry and consumers in two nations and we have only narrowed the source down to three states," says state Sen. Dean Florez, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Food-borne Illness.

Dole has said two of the lettuces in its recalled mix came from the Salinas Valley in California, but it has not identified which fields. And three weeks after the Metz recall, Senator Florez has written to the California Department of Food and Agriculture complaining that inquiries about the origin of the salmonella outbreak have not been answered adequately.

"There is quite a bit of discrepancy between what consumers are being promised and what is being delivered when it comes to food safety," he says.

Alleged shortcomings in regulation of domestic and foreign food sources are under discussion this week in Congress. Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, introduced the Fresh Produce Safety Act of 2007 Thursday. Key provisions include requiring the FDA to develop and enforce mandatory "good agricultural practices" for growers and manufacturers in the US – replacing the voluntary standards that exist now.

"It seems like these fresh-produce recalls have become the new norm in the US, and this is unacceptable," says Senator Harkin. The FDA conducts inspections of operations that grow and process leafy green produce only once every 3.9 years, he notes. "At the same time, it is increasingly clear that the FDA lacks the resources and the reach to ensure the safety of the US food supply."

On Sept. 25, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut plans to address a request made this week by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), asking Congress to require food importers to adopt a foreign-supplier quality-assurance program. Such a measure would require the FDA to monitor and enforce US industry "best practices" guidelines on all imported food products and ingredients.