FDA still weighing steps to prevent produce contamination

Sep 18, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – A year after the United States' largest produce-related Escherichia coli outbreak, federal officials are still weighing their options for preventing produce contamination, and it's not clear if self-regulation measures quickly adopted by growers will prevent future outbreaks.

The outbreak in 2006, blamed on contaminated fresh spinach from California, caused 205 illness cases and three deaths. Before the outbreak, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was already concerned about levels of E coli O157:H7 contamination in leafy greens, which had been rising in recent years. The agency said it had confirmed 22 outbreaks linked to the strain in 12 years.

Three weeks before the FDA issued its first warning about the contaminated spinach, the agency had launched a safety initiative to investigate the causes of the recurring outbreaks traced to leafy greens. Many of the incidents were linked to California's Salinas Valley, which has been called "the salad bowl of the world."

Two investigators from the FDA's Office of Regulatory Affairs were assessing a grower in the Salinas Valley as part of the Lettuce Safety Initiative when they received an emergency call about the E coli outbreak related to spinach, according to an FDA Consumer magazine report. They immediately drove to Natural Selection Foods, the spinach producer that was the focus of the initial recall, to review spinach washing and packaging procedures and collect information about where the company's crops were grown.

The spinach outbreak, followed closely by an E coli outbreak linked to lettuce served at fast-food Mexican restaurants and a Salmonella outbreak traced to tomatoes, prompted calls from consumer groups for more federal regulation of produce safety. Congress members have sought the testimony of federal food safety officials at committee hearings, and some, such as Rep. Rosa De Lauro, D-Conn., have pushed for requiring the FDA to regulate the produce industry.

No increase in inspections
A spokesman for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) told CIDRAP News that work on the Lettuce Safety Initiative was slowed because many of the same investigators who were to explore conditions at growers and producers in the Salinas Valley were dispatched to work on the spinach probe. "They had to react and do extensive product tracebacks," he said.

Investigators from the FDA and the state of California traced the E coli O157:H7 strain implicated in the outbreak to three possible sources: cattle feces, wild pig feces, and surface water. However, officials still aren't sure how the bacteria contaminated the spinach.

Despite widespread concern over contaminated produce, federal officials have not increased their inspections of leafy greens, according to a Sep 12 Associated Press (AP) report. A review of data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the FDA inspects salad-green growers and processors only once every 3.9 years, the AP said.

California public health inspectors do not have the authority to spot-test processing plants that handle fresh greens, the story said.

Many of the FDA's efforts in the wake of recent disease outbreaks linked to fresh greens and tomatoes have been aimed at fact-finding. The agency held two public hearings on fresh produce safety—one in Oakland, Calif., in March and one in College Park, Md., in April—to solicit feedback from consumers and produce industry representatives.

FDA sifts public comments
FDA officials are still reviewing all of the public hearing comments and submissions as they weigh regulatory options, a produce expert from CFSAN, who requested anonymity, told CIDRAP News. She said some industry officials called for government mandates and produce standards, while others preferred that the FDA continue providing guidance on good agricultural practices (GAP) while monitoring growers' use of those practices.

The produce expert said the FDA is still working with California officials to determine how the spinach in last year's outbreak became contaminated. Also, she said the FDA is looking at where research gaps exist, which could help officials focus their prevention efforts on high-risk practices.

Kevin Reilly, DVM, deputy director of prevention services with the California Department of Health Services, told lawmakers last November at a US Senate hearing that initial results from the Lettuce Safety Initiative last summer raised some real concerns. "Preliminary findings on the farms showed that many growers were not implementing GAPs, and several were not aware of recommended GAPs," he said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Does voluntary system work?
In California this summer, legislators shelved three pieces of legislation that would have set standards for irrigation water, established a state inspection system for leafy greens, and reduced fecal contamination on farm fields.

Instead, the majority opted to allow the state of California and the produce industry to establish a voluntary marketing agreement that allows food products to carry an official seal if they come from producers and processors that have followed good food-safety procedures. The producers must agree to undergo safety audits by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

About 99% of the leafy greens industry in California has signed on to the marketing agreement, according to a Jul 19 press release from the CDFA.

However, it's not clear how effective the marketing agreement will be at preventing produce contamination. In late August, Metz Fresh, a California spinach grower, recalled 8,000 cartons of fresh spinach after finding Salmonella in routine testing; no illnesses were reported.

And yesterday, Dole Food Co. recalled bagged lettuce mixes after testing revealed E coli contamination in a sample from a grocery store in Canada. The company said no illnesses had been reported. The salad mixes contained romaine, green leaf, and butter lettuce grown in California, Colorado, and Ohio, according to an ABC News report. The contamination was found in random testing by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, agency spokesman Garfield Balsom told CIDRAP News.

See also:

Aug 31 CIDRAP News story "Spinach recall renews debate over produce safety"

Apr 12 CIDRAP News story "CDC says some foodborne illnesses rose in 2006"

Mar 23 CIDRAP News story "FDA releases final report on spinach E coli outbreak"

Nov 16, 2006 US Senate hearing testimony of Kevin Reilly, DVM

Jul 19 CDFA press release

Sep 17 Dole news release about bagged-salad recall

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