Few fresh answers

Consumers can expect more outbreaks of food-borne illness - the FDA lacks resources for inspections and research

September 22, 2006|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Consumers should expect more bacterial outbreaks like the one involving bagged spinach because federal regulators lack the resources to do much more than react to such events after they occur, food safety experts say.

Once rare, such outbreaks have steadily increased over the past decade as bagged produce has rocketed in popularity. Specialists expect the illnesses to increase until the Food and Drug Administration is better equipped to conduct more inspections, which could prevent episodes, and to support research that would pinpoint the cause.

Since 2003, the agency's food staff has declined by about 10 percent. Sales of fresh salads and produce-related outbreaks have more than tripled over the past 10 years.

"Unless the food part of the agency begins to get money sufficient to deal with inspections and do research to identify when contamination occurs and why, I think we could see an increase in these outbreaks," said Sanford Miller, a former director of FDA's food division now at the University of Maryland's Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy.

Activists and experts said the Bush administration and Congress ignored warning signs that bacterial outbreaks were a growing problem and that more funding was needed.

In response to the latest E. coli outbreak, investigators have descended upon California's Salinas Valley, which grows three-fourths of the country's fresh spinach. The FDA has warned consumers to avoid eating spinach, and two California companies and a New Jersey firm have recalled products containing the produce.

Food safety experts, former regulators and activists praise the rapid response for limiting the harm done by the food-borne illness, which has killed one person and sickened at least 156 across 23 states.

But they doubt it will stop future scares. Since 1995, there have been 20 outbreaks caused by the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria blamed in the most recent episode. Cases of food-borne illness from infected produce now regularly surpass those from beef, poultry and fish combined, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

"It's going to continue until somebody does the research to figure out how the contamination happens," said Dean Cliver, professor of food safety at the University of California, Davis. "There are a number of theories, but nothing conclusive. Food and Drug comes to the area and admonishes everyone to clean up their acts, but they don't have any specific recommendations."

The FDA has repeatedly encouraged the industry to take more preventive action.

"In light of continuing outbreaks, it is clear that more needs to be done," said a Nov. 4, 2005, warning letter to California firms growing, packing, processing and shipping fresh leafy greens. Last month, the agency launched a safety program for lettuce, since expanded to include spinach.

"The bottom line is clearly there is still a problem and what has been done to date hasn't been enough," said Dr. David W.K. Acheson, chief medical officer at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

By redeploying staff, the FDA had sufficient resources to investigate the latest outbreak, Acheson said, but he agreed that the agency could use more funding to research the sources of bacterial contamination. He said the agency wanted to meet with industry to discuss enhancing its regulatory authority and take other steps to make sure firms follow good practices.

"Somewhere between inspecting every harvest in every field every day versus where we are now, that's going to have to be worked out - sooner rather than later, hopefully," Acheson said.

Jerry Welcome, executive vice president for business development at the United Fresh Produce Association, the largest trade group, attributed part of the increase in food-borne illnesses to improved reporting systems. Welcome said industry has been making sure that firms follow recommended practices for growing, processing and shipping fresh produce, such as keeping equipment clean.

Even Welcome acknowledges that the steps can reduce the risk of contamination only so much, because the cause of the outbreaks remains unknown. "Right now, you wouldn't know what to tweak," he said.

The increase in outbreaks in related to the skyrocketing consumption of fresh produce and especially packaged salads, which the Produce Market Association says is now a $3 billion-a-year industry. Americans consumed an average of 2 pounds of fresh spinach in each of the past three years, the highest since the mid-1940s, the industry group says.

Much of the growth came during the past decade, due to advances in packaging and to consumers' increasing preference for healthful and ready-to-eat foods. But the FDA, which is responsible for overseeing the industry, has not been able to keep up because of fuzzy regulatory authority and dwindling resources, former officials say.

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