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Food safety: How to keep our global menu off the recall list

As the food recall list grows and food imports flood into the US, it may be time to revamp America's 70-year-old laws on food safety.

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Places like California, Florida, and New Jersey, which once supplied most of America's fruits and vegetables, compete increasingly with produce from abroad. In 2008, the US imported nearly half of its fresh fruits and nearly a fifth of its vegetables, much of it from Mexico. Mexican imports of onions to the US have grown 28 percent this past decade; tomatoes, 77 percent; broccoli and cauliflower, 429 percent.

"In another decade, Mexico will be the fruit and salad bowl of the US," says Michael Doyle, who heads the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.

That's problematic if the US government cannot ensure that Mexican fields of lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and onions are free of dangerous bacteria or pesticides. Neither the FDA nor its Mexican counterpart requires fresh produce growers to be certified before they send food into the US.

The FDA does screen products at the border, targeting those products and producers that have posed problems in the past. But a 2008 Government Accountability Office report showed that the FDA examined less than 1 percent of the fresh produce coming through its borders between 2000 and 2007. So almost all the food that reaches the US passes through without being physically examined at all.

Earlier in the decade, outbreaks of food-borne illness in the US were traced back to Mexico – including a 2003 incident that linked hepatitis A with Mexican green onions and salmonella as well as outbreaks of illness blamed on Mexican cantaloupes in 2000, 2001, and 2002. These incidents spurred the Mexican industry to clean up its image by developing various voluntary standards. For example, México Calidad Suprema is a generic brand that growers and packers commit to operate by high food-safety standards.

"Nobody ensures that" quality, says Frank Pope, who exports carrots produced in Queretaro, in central Mexico, to the US. "The market takes care of it."

Such faith in the market and voluntary efforts by the Mexican growers and packers have won over some US wholesalers. "They're working very hard to counteract that" taint, says Peter John Condakes, whose New England produce wholesale and distributing company buys more than half of its Roma tomatoes from Mexican companies. "Truthfully, in a lot of cases, the packing sheds are as strict or more strict than in the United States."

The challenge with voluntary food-safety programs is that one farm's mistakes can ruin the reputation of the entire industry, as the US spinach industry found out in 2006.

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E. coli contamination in spinach, which was linked to one California farm and three fatalities, cost the industry more than $200 million, according to a USDA study. It also sparked both industry and government reform efforts: California produce shippers and handlers came together to create tough new standards under the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). Food-safety advocates in Congress, who had been focused on a comprehensive revamp of the USDA and the FDA, began to focus specifically on the FDA, which is responsible for spinach.