COLLEGE PARK,Md. – Typified by last year's spinach and Taco Bell food-borne illness outbreaks,more people are getting sick more often due to tainted produce – a trend the government wants to reverse.
The Food and Drug Administration convened for the second of two hearings Friday to discuss the overall safety of produce. Industry representatives,consumer actions groups, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and representatives from several food safety associations offered possible solutions.
“The bottom line: We think there has been an increase in produce associated outbreaks,” since 1973 and “it seems it hasn't gone away,” said Art Liang,CDC's acting director of food-borne disease.
Each year,one in four Americans becomes ill after eating raw produce,and one in 1,000 is hospitalized. The bagged spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006 killed three and caused consumer confidence to plummet after food suppliers issued major recalls.
In addition,recent peanut butter and pet food outbreaks have caused some consumers to call for changes in the FDA,the primary federal agency in charge of food safety.
Some officials stated a need for the federal government to consolidate federal inspection standards for a top-down solution. Along with the FDA and CDC,13 other federal organizations manage food safety.
“We need to avoid a patchwork approach for a situation that is calling out for an umbrella organization,” said Bryan Silbermann,president of the Produce Marketing Association.
Silbermann's group is helping to fund the nation's first research program geared toward improving the overall safety of the produce system. The Center for Produce Safety at the University of California,Davis will research the status of the food safety system “far beyond the borders of California,” he said.
Other officials stressed a need for stricter regulations. Under the current system,the government recommends that farmers follow voluntary “good agricultural practices” to ensure safety standards.
“Many people in the fresh produce industry do not believe there is a problem. They say we've been doing this for decades,and no one has ever gotten sick from our produce,” said Jim Rushing,director of the Coastal Research and Education Center at Clemson University,about farmers resisting the adoption of government recommendations.
The states,especially,worry that a greater government role would burden farmers with costly red tape.
“Most state agencies do not seek or desire more regulation,” Rushing said,instead recommending the need for an official,uniform auditing process in which someone trained in food safety would work with farmers. Such a system could would make tracing illnesses easier,he said.
Expanding on Rushing's statements,Caroline Smith-DeWaal,director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest,said farmers should draft their own food safety plans,specific to working conditions on their farms.
Farmers would turn the plans over to an oversight panel,alerting officials of possible cracks in the food safety system from the bottom up. DeWaal recommended that the FDA,state agencies and major produce purchasers like Wal-mart or Costco could audit the reports according to uniform standards.
But who and what determine those standards?
Rushing said farmers are confused about both specific and general issues of produce safety.
“How far away should animals be? How serious is the risk of airborne contamination? What is the proper way to design a buffer zone? What about waterborne contamination?” Rushing said.
The hearings were designed to collect information about each step of the produce process,helping the FDA decide what actions,if any,to take to change the food safety system.