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Outbreak News

Holes in produce safety could kill you

E. coli outbreak shows how easily contaminated food can reach fork

September 24, 2006

Knight-Ridder Tribune

Amy Baldwin,

The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

The recent E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach is making clear what food safety experts say they've known for years: From farm to fork, there aren't enough checks and balances to protect consumers from contaminated food.

One expert likened lax government oversight and voluntary guidelines to gambling with people's lives. Among the holes they cite in the safety of the nation's food supply:The Food and Drug Administration has no authority to inspect farms until an outbreak.

The FDA can't enforce safety regulations on the farm or in a production facility. It can merely suggest good practices. In fact, the agency twice in the past two years warned spinach growers to improve safety on their farms.

There are lots of opportunities for food contamination -- from the farm to the processing plants to distribution centers and retail stores. Yet, the thoroughness and frequency of state inspections vary, and it's possible a store could go years without a check-up -- if at all.

As of Saturday, the outbreak had sickened 171 people in 25 states -- but neither of the Carolinas -- and killed at least one person in Wisconsin. Authorities in Idaho and Maryland were investigating the deaths of two others, including a toddler to determi ne whether their deaths were also linked to E. coli.

The FDA first warned of the E. coli outbreak Sept. 14, telling consumers to avoid bagged spinach and that even washing the leaves would not remove the sometimes deadly bacteria.

Food safety experts say such outbreaks could be avoided. Possible solutions, they said: the FDA or U.S. Department of Agriculture -- or some government entity -- should have more authority on farms when it comes to preventing diseases in humans. And growe rs should be required to adhere to safety standards, rather than merely being encouraged to.

While some states do some monitoring, the experts say safeguarding the nation's food supply is too big a job for any one state, especially when state programs can vary widely.

South Carolina doesn't check for bacteria until there is an outbreak.

North Carolina runs about 800 produce tests a year -- for pathogens, such as E. coli, and pesticides -- gathering samples from farms, processing plants, distribution centers and stores. But that means tests at individual locations are few and far between. There are more than 1,300 supermarkets in the state, for example.

"This industry has been playing roulette with the consumer for way too long a time," said Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety.

Right now, the system for ensuring safety of produce is a patchwork construction and the holes are becoming more apparent, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

"We don't have an agency that can go in and do a mandatory recall. We don't have an agency with inspectors to see that they have (safety) controls in place. We don't even have mandatory controls," DeWaal said. "The FDA relies on guidelines."

The FDA isn't allowed on farms until there is an outbreak, she said.

The USDA is the authority on the farm but only when it comes to responding to animal or plant diseases that make the livestock or crop sick -- but not people.

"USDA has one job, FDA has another," DeWaal said. "But we really need to have an agency designated that has the authority and resources to manage and monitor food safety at the farm level."

Dr. David Acheson of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said in a media conference call Thursday that changes and regulations might indeed be needed but he wasn't specific on what the solutions might be.

"If the good agricultural practices, which are not mandatory, are not being followed, there is something potentially there to say they have to be followed ... to become a requirement," he said. "There is a need to get on top of this problem and fix it. We can't (afford to have) more people get sick."

Food safety experts and the FDA agree that food-borne infections are high -- too high. There have been at least 20 E. coli outbreaks since 1995, according to the FDA. Ten, including the current one, have been traced to California's Salinas Valley, dubbed the "salad bowl of the world."

The FDA warned California spinach growers, responsible for 74 percent of the nation's crop in 2004 and 2005, to beef up safety of the product they grow. The latest outbreak was traced to Natural Selection Foods, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif. The comp any has voluntarily recalled products containing spinach.

But warnings and guidelines the FDA calls "good agricultural practices" are not enough, said Doyle of University of Georgia

He favors a law that would require produce growers to have certain practices in place to reduce pathogens. That's what meatpackers had to do following the Pathogen Reduction Act of 1994.

The law required meat and poultry producers to have in place so-called hazard analysis critical control point systems. This means having safeguards at all the points in growing and production -- i.e. the field, the processing plant and distribution center s -- to ensure food safety. One example in the fields: Having stations for farm laborers to wash their hands.

In the meat industry, since passage of the law, carcasses go through a steam cabinet to kill bacteria.

President Clinton proposed the pathogen law after 450 people were sickened by E. coli from undercooked hamburgers sold by the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain. Two children died in the outbreak.

Such laws are necessary to give companies economic motivation to ensure food safety, Doyle said. Before the Pathogen Reduction Act, meatpackers with more rigorous precautions were at an economic disadvantage to less stringent competitors. The costs of saf ety procedures couldn't be passed on to consumers, he said.

"Consumers expect their food to be safe," Doyle said.

Critical control points in produce would vary by type of fruit and vegetable, he added. Lettuce, for example, could be washed with an organic acid or peroxide heated to a certain level.

Doyle said his lab has tested such processes. Consumers who sampled it didn't notice a dramatic difference in taste.

Asked if critical control points would make sense in the fresh produce business, the FDA's Acheson said: "There is going to be a need to examine the system -- what is working and what is not working. ... At this point I wouldn't rule anything in or out."

One food safety expert would like to see growers come up with their own standards, rather than rely on government intervention. Lost business, bad publicity and possibly lawsuits could provide the catalyst for better safety measures from farm to productio n plant, said Douglas Powell, scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.

"This one is going to change things," he said. It "didn't shut down a company but an entire commodity. You are only as good as your worst grower."

More on this outbreak: Dole and Natural Selections Spinach E. coli Outbreak

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