California lawmakers shelve E coli bills

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Jun 28, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Blocking proposals stemming from notorious foodborne-disease outbreaks last year, a California State Assembly committee yesterday rejected one bill aimed at reducing contamination in leafy greens and stalled voting on two others, despite the State Senate's earlier approval of all three.

The three bills were proposed by Dean Florez, a Democratic state senator whose district includes part of the Central Valley, the area implicated in the late 2006 Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to lettuce from Taco John's restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota. The US Food and Drug Administration said lettuce probably caused a nearly simultaneous E coli outbreak linked to Taco Bell restaurants on the East Coast, though the growing area was never identified.

Two months before those episodes, another high-profile E coli outbreak was caused by contaminated spinach from California's Salinas Valley. That outbreak involved 204 cases and 3 deaths in 26 states and one Canadian province.

The three bills never progressed past the Assembly's Agriculture Committee, according to an Associated Press (AP) report today. The committee rejected a bill that would have made it easier for officials to trace contaminated produce and decided not to vote on two other bills, the AP reported.

One of the stalled bills would have required quality standards for irrigation water, prohibited the use of untreated manure as fertilizer, and banned portable toilets from farm fields, according to the AP. The other would have established a state inspection program for leafy vegetables and a recall procedure for contaminated produce.

The committee's actions prompted a sharp exchange between Florez and Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, a Democrat whose district also includes part of the Central Valley growing area, according to several media reports. Florez called the Assembly Agriculture Committee "cowards" and charged that their inaction on the bills signaled that they were "willing to wait for another death, another injury, another sickness," the AP reported.

Parra countered that Florez was misinterpreting the committee's actions, according to the AP report. She said the reason for blocking the bills was that the committee instead supported a new, voluntary marketing agreemennt that allows food products to carry an official seal if they come from producers and processors that have followed good food safety procedures.

The voluntary marketing agreement is administered by the state of California but was drafted by food producers, according to previous media reports. Florez has claimed that self-regulation has done little to improve food safety.

Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, a Democrat from Tracy, said lawmakers should give the industry's marketing agreement a chance to improve food safety before passing any legislation, the AP report said.

The Western Growers Association, an agricultural group, applauded the Agriculture Committee's actions, according to a press release yesterday. "We are very pleased with the committee's decision to stop these pieces of legislation and allow our industry an opportunity to show that the Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement is the most effective approach to ensuring the leafy greens grown, harvested, packed, and shipped to our dinner tables is as safe as scientifically possible," said Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and chief executive officer, in the press release.

Even if the bills had passed, it's unclear if they would have become law, because California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated that he prefers the voluntary approach, the Visalia Times-Delta reported today.

See also:

Jan 26 CIDRAP News story "California debates produce safety measures"

California leafy greens marketing agreement Web site
http://www.caleafygreens.ca.gov/

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