A move to make fresh US produce safer

Six months after E. coli contaminated spinach killed three people and sickened 200 others in 19 states, the federal Food and Drug Administration has crafted new guidelines for the food industry to follow to help keep fresh-cut produce safe.

Welcomed by many producers and growers, the FDA recommendations outline practices that ought to be followed – from handling to processing to storing – to "minimize the potential for microbial contamination." But consumer groups and some in Congress criticize the guidelines as inadequate, primarily because compliance is voluntary, not mandatory.

With release of the recommendations this week, all sides are taking the opportunity to determine if the US food supply is safer from contaminants – and if safer is safe enough. Many note that the number of cases of food-borne illness tied to produce have been growing recently.

"The most fascinating thing about [the FDA guidelines], all the way through, is that these are nonbinding.... No one has to do anything in here if they don't want to," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. The 41-page document defines standards governing everything from water use and worker health and hygiene to training, disease containment, and reporting of contaminants.

"This is merely the FDA's best thinking of what the produce industry might want to try if they want to stop the problems," says Ms. DeWaal. The standards, she says, should be both mandated and enforced. "What we have now is too little, too late ... and not sufficient to actually prevent further outbreaks from occurring."

The FDA and some producer and grower associations counter that guidelines are an improvement over no guidelines. They are more flexible and could be put in place sooner than mandatory laws could be, and can be a first step in a process of developing more stringent controls. Guidelines have a track record of success, they say, citing voluntary measures concerning production of sprouts that reduced contamination levels in the past few years.

"In our experience, guidelines do work," says Nega Beru, director of the FDA's food safety office. The agency will consider what more should be done after hearing comments at public meetings over the next month and has not ruled out further regulations, he says. "If you look at the number of illnesses from sprouts during the 1990s until 1999, when we issued guidelines over seed disinfection, irrigation, water testing, we have seen illnesses drop significantly for several straight years," says Mr. Beru.

Voluntary guidelines have more impact than it might appear, says Jenny Scott, vice president for food safety for the Food Products Association.

"When customers see the FDA put out something like this, they take them seriously and expect such practices," says Ms. Scott. "They definitely help." Mandatory regulations, by contrast, don't have adequate flexibility and can straitjacket practices long after best practices have changed, she adds. One such regulation, in place since 1986 but long outdated, she says, is that refrigerated products be held at 45 degrees F. or below, even though many fruit and vegetables need lower temperatures.

At a congressional hearing this week outside Madison, Wis., Sen. Herb Kohl (D) of Wisconsin said that "when it comes to safety ... we have a bigger hill to climb."

Between 1998 and 2004, the number of disease outbreaks tied to contaminated produce has doubled, Senator Kohl said in his testimony. In all, since 1990 public-health officials have tracked 30,000 cases of illness – involving 650 outbreaks linked to consumption of produce. The FDA estimates that from 1996 to 2006 25 percent of all produce-related outbreaks have been with fresh-cut produce such as shredded lettuce, peeled baby carrots, broccoli florets, or cut melons.

In his testimony, Kohl also reviewed recent contamination cases aside from the spinach incidents, on which the FDA is yet to issue a final report. Last September, 200 cases of salmonella poisoning were attributed to tomatoes; in February the FDA recalled cantaloupes after some tested positive with salmonella, he said. A recall of peanut butter made by ConAgra Foods issued last year continues after salmonella was detected last August.

Safety challenges are growing as the FDA employs fewer inspectors, while imports and consumption of raw fruits and vegetable are growing, Kohl said, noting that in 2006 the FDA conducted half the number of inspections it did in 2003. Safety tests for food produced in the US have also dropped by 75 percent from 2003, he added.

Because of such high-profile incidents, the past six months have been a "watershed for the industry," says Dave Gombas, vice president of scientific affairs for the United Fresh Produce Association. "These guidelines are just one step in a much longer process to win back the confidence of the consumer." So-called fresh-cut produce is the newest and biggest challenge, Mr. Gombas says, because it is minimally processed, with no "kill step" to ensure safety.

His comments spotlight one intangible in the new debate: how much can increased care by both producers and consumers improve safety.

"I do not believe we are any safer, nor any less safe, than we were before the spinach outbreak, except that awareness is raised as to the magnitude of damage that can be done to human health and the produce industry," says Linda Halley, general manager of Fairview Gardens, an organic farm in Goleta, California.

That awareness could motivate "more producers and processors to really implement all the facets of the guidelines," she adds.

"Mandating inspections or certifications for producers of raw product ... would be difficult to enforce and overly burdensome on the small producer."

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