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

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

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.

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.

"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."

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."

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