Outbreaks Reveal Food Safety Net's Holes

Boskovich Farms of California has been a Taco Bell supplier. The restaurant chain believes green onions are responsible for an E. coli outbreak.
Boskovich Farms of California has been a Taco Bell supplier. The restaurant chain believes green onions are responsible for an E. coli outbreak. (By Reed Saxon -- Associated Press)
By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

First it was spinach. Then tomatoes. Now possibly green onions.

Over the past three months, fresh produce has been the culprit in one episode of food-borne illness after another, the latest an E. coli outbreak that appears to be linked to green onions served at Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast. More than 60 people have been sickened in that outbreak.

The patchwork of federal and state regulations that is supposed to ensure food safety has become less effective as the nation's produce supply has grown increasingly industrial. Three months after the spinach scare, there is no agreement on what should be done to reduce health risks from the nation's fruits and vegetables even as each episode of illness has heightened a sense of urgency.

The number of produce-related outbreaks of food-borne illness has increased from about 40 in 1999 to 86 in 2004, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Americans are now more likely to get sick from eating contaminated produce than from any other food item, the center said.

"It's fairly clear something needs to change," David W.K. Acheson, a top federal food safety official, said Friday. "Having illness and repeated outbreaks, especially the ones we've seen in the last couple of months, is clearly unacceptable to everyone."

Consumer advocates think that tougher mandatory food safety standards and stepped-up enforcement are the answer. The country's largest food distributors and restaurants are pursuing self-regulation, arguing that government rules can take years to put in place. Produce growers and packers have suggested a voluntary system with elements of mandatory oversight. But even the industry proposals are months away from taking effect.

Several factors have contributed to the rise in outbreaks: greater consumption of fresh produce, especially cut fruits and vegetables; wider distribution; improved electronic reporting of outbreaks; and an aging population more susceptible to food-borne illness. Produce presents a special food safety challenge because, unlike meat, which can be rid of bacteria through proper cooking, it is meant to be consumed raw. There is no "kill step," as food safety experts put it.

E. coli O157:H7 has been a particular problem. Unlike the usually benign E. coli bacteria that live in warm-blooded animals and humans, the strain produces toxins that destroy the intestinal lining, leading to bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and, sometimes, death. It was first blamed for a food-borne-illness outbreak in the early 1980s, leading some microbiologists to suggest that it arose in industrial livestock, which are force-fed grain and pumped with antibiotics.

The strain that caused September's spinach outbreak, which killed three and sickened about 200, has been found in cattle feces near a California spinach field and in wild pigs that roamed through it.

The source of the Taco Bell outbreak has not been found, but the company suspects green onions -- also from California. Fresh tomatoes served in restaurants this fall, believed to have made nearly 200 people sick, carried another bacterium, salmonella.

Taco Bell President Greg Creed said Saturday that the produce supply system needs better guidelines and procedures.

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