Latest leafy green recalls: A step-up in inspections in sight?
Lawmaker impatience is rising over voluntary industry effort to improve food safety.
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"Given the major recalls this year, the [GMA proposal] sends a very strong message that the industry recognizes the inadequacy of voluntary measures to protect public health and reassure Americans that their food is safe," says Representative DeLauro. "It is yet one more voice highlighting the need to change our system to one that seeks ... to focus … on preventing food-borne illness, not just reacting when outbreaks occur."Skip to next paragraph
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This disagreement over whether oversight should be voluntary or mandatory is what has prevented improvements since last September, experts say.
Those who want to further regulate the path of US food from farm to fork say voluntary standards are well and good – but they leave gaps that can be exploited by those who don't want to comply, either in the US or abroad. Though many growers from California to Florida tightened up oversight and improved cleanliness, serious gaps – such as those that led to the two recent recalls – may continue to be commonplace, they say.
"In the past year, the best in the industry have gotten better … but nothing has changed for those in the industry who don't want to change," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
After last September's E. coli outbreaks, the first calls from the food industry for government oversight of the American food chain would have given them a grade of "A," she says. "But as the year progressed, I would give them only about a 'C-plus.'" She and others say farmers resist formal government oversight not because they want to continue in shoddy practices, but because such oversight is slow, burdensome, and inflexible as farming practices and technology change.
"Despite pronouncements by the leadership of trade associations that they want oversight, there has been a lot of pushback by the farmers themselves," says Ms. DeWaal. That is evident in continued problems in the Salinas Valley, where cattle operations remain too close to fields of leafy greens. It is reflected, too, in a continued drop-off in consumer confidence.
A new study by the Food Marketing Institute shows that 66 percent of grocery shoppers are confident that the food they buy is safe, compared with 82 percent a year ago.
Others say there is middle ground.
In California, for instance, the Leafy Green Agreement has been signed by 99 percent of in-state growers of leafy greens, from spinach and lettuce to kale, chard, escarole, arugula, and cabbage. Those who sign do so voluntarily, but once in they are subject to mandatory enforcement of standards. The marketing agreement collects money from food handlers and processors and then pays state agencies to make random audits of farms.
"Farmers here feel the agreement offers ... a lot more opportunity for rules to change and improve as research and technology create improvements in farming methods and machinery," says Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "The bottom line for farmers is that to make sure their product is safe every day, they need regulations that are not set in stone … that can ... grow and adapt and improve to make the best possible system."