Europe's E. coli outbreak: Does new food safety law prevent that in US?

A new US food safety regimen became law in January. It expands government regulation of growers, but it's not clear Congress will allot enough funds to implement and enforce the law.

Michael Sohn/AP
In this June 3 photo, tomatoes and cucumbers are displayed for sale at a market in Berlin. After Europe's deadly E. coli outbreak, how safe are fruits and vegetables in America?

Scientists on Friday blamed contaminated vegetable sprouts for the E. coli outbreak that began in northern Germany and that public health officials say has killed 31 people and sickened nearly 3,100 others throughout Europe.

The deadly outbreak prompts this question in America: How safe is our own farm food?

Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act late last year after a series of similar, though less severe, outbreaks of food-borne illness in the US. The law, which President Obama signed in January, allows for greatly expanded regulation of domestic and imported fruits and vegetables.

While the law’s scope is unprecedented, some gaps remain, as do questions about funding and enforcement.

“It’s an important and historic advance in how food will be protected in the United States,” says Erik Olson, director of food programs for the Pew Health Group in Washington, D.C.

But, Mr. Olson adds, if the new law is not fully financed and implemented, “We are worried that the kinds of things that are happening in Europe right now could come to our shores at any time.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act gives broad new regulatory powers to the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency responsible for the safety of the processed food, dairy products, and produce that Americans eat. The law, which passed with bipartisan support, authorizes the FDA to inspect food imports, order recalls of tainted food, and regulate safety practices on produce farms.

“The most important thing that it does is give us a focus on prevention,” says FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. “Instead of being in a position where we have to respond to outbreaks, it puts a responsibility on producers to put into place preventive controls to make sure their food is safe.”

When it comes to produce safety, the goal is to keep pathogens away from crops.

Bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella – the most frequently reported sources of food-borne illness – live in animal intestines and travel in feces. To prevent crop contamination, experts say, farmers should focus on the four W’s: water, waste, wildlife, and workers.

Still, when fruits and vegetables are eaten raw, there can be no guarantee that the produce is pathogen-free.

“There’s no zero-risk in fresh fruits or vegetables,” says Betsy Bihn, coordinator of a farm safety training program operated out of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and funded in part by the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture. “The best we can do is reduce risk and do the things that make the most sense.”

Reducing risk is the foundation of the new food safety law, which for the first time empowers the FDA to regulate the safety practices of produce farmers. Though the FDA won’t propose its new regulations until next year, the law requires the rules to focus on soil treatment, worker hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animals in the growing area, and water.

Though the Germany-based E. coli outbreak is the latest reminder of the high cost of food contamination, a series of outbreaks in the US led to the Food Safety Modernization Act.

In recent years, salmonella outbreaks in the US were linked to cantaloupe, alfalfa sprouts, and jalapeño peppers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. In 2006, 199 people were sickened and at least three died after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli.

The FDA released a detailed farm safety manual in 1998. But because the agency lacked regulatory powers, the safety measures were simply recommendations, not requirements. Many retailers – from Wal-Mart to local farmers markets – filled this regulatory void by requiring the growers they buy from to submit to third-party safety audits.

Some food safety advocates say that system – which will remain in place until the FDA’s new regulations take effect in the coming years – isn’t enough.

“From a consumer perspective, the protections are shoddy,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. “In some stores you may have a very strong system of protections, but in others there may be no protections.”

While the new law grants the FDA power to regulate produce farmers, it doesn’t require the agency to inspect farms to ensure compliance with the new rules.

Not that it necessarily could: There are about 1,000 FDA inspection agents to cover more than 2 million American farms, according to FDA spokesman Doug Karas.

“A lot of things will depend on state and local cooperation,” says Mr. Karas. “We’re going to try to build an integrated national food safety system.”

Karas adds that besides farm and food facility inspections, the FDA collects food samples, monitors recalls, and audits safety records.

Another possible gap in the new food safety law is an exemption for farmers who sell most of their goods locally and earn less than $500,000 in annual sales. According to a 2010 report by the USDA, nearly 30 percent of all US agricultural output comes from family farms that earn less than $500,000 annually.

“It’s a fairly big chunk,” says Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland. “That’s going to put a wrinkle into what the FDA is going to do.”

Most troubling to many food safety advocates is the possibility the FDA won’t have enough resources to carry out its new mandate.

Mr. Obama called for spending $955 million on the FDA’s food safety program during the next fiscal year. But the Republican-chaired House subcommittee that monitors the FDA has proposed reducing that amount to $750 million. That would represent a decrease of $87 million from the agency’s current food safety funding, which does not include implementation of the new law.

An FDA document dated May 23, 2011, was recently leaked to the press. The document says that, without adequate funding, the FDA will be unable to develop preventive measures for small growers or train “FDA, state and local food safety field staff to ensure proper, practical implementation of new standards.”

The document concludes: “2012 is a crucial year for [Food Safety Modernization Act] implementation. Lack of funding at this stage will stall essential foundation-laying efforts that are key to long-term success.”

Dr. Buchanan agrees that the agency needs full funding to carry out the new law.

Otherwise, Buchanan says, “It will raise consumers’ expectations – but it won’t be able to deliver.”

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.