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.
Although meat and dairy products are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, the safety of fruits and vegetables is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration and the states. But they have jurisdiction only over processing plants. Food safety at the farm level is largely self-regulated.
That has left government regulators in the position over the past eight years of nagging the produce industry to improve food safety by publishing voluntary guidelines and sending letters of admonishment.
The FDA's critics say the agency doesn't have the manpower to do more. From 2003 to 2006, the budget for the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has fallen 37 percent, according to agency data. That has meant fewer inspectors and less frequent inspections. In 2005, the FDA conducted 4,573 inspections of domestic food-processing operations. For 2006, the agency said, it hopes to conduct 3,400. There are more than 12,000 such plants in the nation.
"The reality of FDA's situation is they don't have the basic inspectors to inspect the food supply they're in charge of," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They just don't have the people . . . to manage this problem at the farm level."
In mid-November, the CSPI petitioned the FDA, as well as the state of California, to set mandatory safety standards for fruits and vegetables. Consumer advocates also want Congress to give the agency more resources and enforcement powers. They point to two recent food recalls as examples of how rarely the FDA inspects some processing plants.
The FDA last inspected House of Thaller's processing plant in July 2002 and found deficiencies with the food safety plans, sanitation monitoring and pathogen testing, according to records obtained by the consumer group Food & Water Watch. On May 19 this year, the Knoxville, Tenn., company recalled 160,000 pounds of deli salads and dips because of potential contamination.
The agency inspected the facilities of Albert Lea, Minn.-based Mrs. Gerry's Kitchen three times in five years, most recently in August 2005. During those visits, inspectors identified problems with the company's food safety plans. In May, two days before the House of Thaller recall, Mrs. Gerry's recalled 54,000 pounds of salads because of potential contamination.
The FDA's Acheson said the agency's food safety work hasn't suffered as a result of funding constraints.
"As resources shift around in terms of overall total resources and within different centers, what the agency does is to shift to resources to address the maximum public health risk. The spinach investigation was, no question, a high priority," he said. "We can always do more with more, but do I think a lack of resources will impact efforts to prevent future outbreaks? No."
Buyers such as Safeway and Albertsons have chosen not to rely on government regulators and instead hired their own auditors to do inspections. But both food safety officials and auditors say there is little consistency because the government guidelines aren't specific enough.
"We don't have enough science to base those [guidelines] on to be comprehensive," said Kevin Reilly, a California food safety official who is participating in the investigation of the E. coli outbreak traced to bagged spinach. "What's necessary is an agreed-upon set of agricultural practices. Instead of 'Be aware of water quality,' we need to say, 'Test it with this frequency and in this fashion.' "
The privately funded system of audits and inspections, however, remains the produce industry's main tool for preventing future outbreaks.
In October, executives of eight supermarket chains and distributors, including Safeway, Sysco, Wegmans and Kroger, sent a letter to growers and packers, demanding that they develop a food safety program for lettuce and other leafy greens by Dec. 15. The program has been drafted but is still being reviewed by regulators.
Not content to let the growers write their own standards, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents large retailers and wholesalers, and the National Restaurant Association are developing separate guidelines to update those used by private auditors.
The growers, led by two trade groups, Western Growers and the United Fresh Produce Association, have responded with standards that government regulators would enforce through a marketing order -- an agreement farmers pay to participate in designed to stabilize market conditions for certain commodities. Such orders are enforced by the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service, not the FDA, and food safety is not typically their main purpose.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture is considering the growers' proposal and could put an order in place as early as late January, spokesman Steve Lyle said.
The federal Agricultural Marketing Service hasn't responded yet, a Western Growers spokesman said.
Officials at the FDA who are reviewing the proposal have so far welcomed the market-order approach as part of the solution. "If you look at what might be able to happen before next growing season . . . a rule is not a practical proposition," Acheson said.
There's one area of agreement: the consequences of inaction.
"Unless something changes," Reilly said, "we will have another outbreak."