Calls to improve US food safety gain urgency

Latest food-contamination case raises the stakes for growers, public officials.

Pinning down the culprit in the latest food-contamination case can seem a bit like the guessing game of Clue: a California grower, at the Taco Bell, with the scallions?

Maybe not. Monday's acknowledgement by federal health officials that green onions served by Taco Bell can't be confirmed as the source of an E. coli outbreak this month shows the challenges of tracing the bacteria strain – in a timely fashion – to its source. Public health advocates say it also shows, again, why government oversight of the US food chain needs to be improved.

The announcement by David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Christopher Braden of the Centers for Disease Control means it's unknown which foods – if any – led to the reported illnesses of 64 people who visited Taco Bells in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and South Carolina. Last week, after preliminary tests cast suspicion on green onions as a source of E. coli bacteria, Taco Bell ordered them removed from its restaurants nationwide.

Along with E. coli contamination of spinach in September, which health officials linked to three deaths and 206 cases of illness, this latest episode is giving a greater urgency to calls for tighter controls and more funding for enforcement. Another bacterium, salmonella, was found in fresh tomatoes this fall, which health officials say made 200 others ill. And even as officials cast doubt on green onions as the problem at Taco Bell, they said a lab detected the problematic E. coli strain in white onions from a Taco Bell in Napa, N.Y.

As a result, major producers of fruits and vegetables are speeding up efforts to develop industry standards for farm inspections, water- and soil-quality monitoring, and sanitation. The Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation, too, are fast-tracking plans they say could be in effect by spring.

Some restaurant chains are using their economic clout to pressure food producers to tighten cleanliness standards. They are hiring certification agents of their own – and wielding the threat of lost business. Taco Bell, for instance, said it changed produce suppliers for the affected states.

The rising concern means improvements are likely to occur – if slowly – on the farm, in food-processing facilities, and in distribution networks, experts say. Congress, too, is paying attention.

"The system is broken, and Congress needs to act to protect the public health," says Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut, who is likely to chair the agriculture subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in the next Congress. "This fall we have seen a staggering number of recalls and food-borne illness outbreaks involving bagged spinach, lettuce, bottled carrot juice, egg salad, ground beef products, turkey, and Taco Bells. ...[O]fficials refused to acknowledge that a problem existed, believing that current safeguards were adequate."

Ms. DeLauro and others are calling for consolidation of eight federal agencies – from egg graders to animal and plant inspectors to nutritionists to pesticide regulators – into a single food safety administration that would be responsible for ensuring food safety. Meat and dairy products are now regulated by the Agriculture Department, and the safety of fruits and vegetables is the duty of the Food and Drug Administration as well as state agencies.

Public concern about food contaminants could be the catalyst that moves the legislation, which has been introduced every year since 1999, say DeLauro and others. The bill also calls for a system of registration, and regular inspection of slaughterhouses and food processing, storage, and distribution facilities.

"The government has used voluntary guidelines developed in the late '90s, which are ... vague and unenforced," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Now consumers are pressuring government to do more because they are beginning to question what is safe to eat."

Much of the focus on how to improve standards is on California, where half the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown. Tainted spinach was traced to a California grower in September. How food producers here respond to contamination problems could serve as a model for the federal government and other states, experts say.

"The other 49 states are saying, 'California, you have the initiative to move forward and deal with it,' " says Ron Gaskill of the American Farm Bureau Federation. A 1937 California law, he notes, gives food producers the leeway to solve production and marketing problems collectively that cannot be addressed individually.

The Western Growers Association, meanwhile, has taken the unusual step of asking California to help growers enforce guidelines for leafy greens, says spokesman Tim Chelling. In April, producers approved a set of guidelines governing the handling of food from field to harvest to storage, transport, and distribution. The recent contamination cases have put that effort on the fast track, he says.

The April document is getting input from agencies, scientists, and industry, he adds. A set of standards will be presented to the California Department of Food and Agriculture by Jan. 13, and should be in effect by spring, Mr. Chelling says. "This will be a 100 percent mandatory set of procedures that 100 percent of growers will have to follow."

Other experts warn that new procedures – mandatory or voluntary – often fall short on enforcement because of lack of agency manpower or will power of farmers. Nationally, fewer than 2,000 FDA inspectors track more than 12,000 facilities – down 250 inspectors from 2003.

Consumers shouldn't expect an inspector in every field, says Craig Hedberg at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. "We will continue to hear that these agencies don't have enough people, and that is probably true."

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