Produce safety is under fire

Outbreak linked to spinach raises questions

March 24, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

Food allergies and asthma have made Suganthan Sundaralingam a sickly kid. But the New Jersey boy, 13, says he's never suffered more than after eating his favorite Taco Bell meal: two chicken tacos.

For three sleepless nights in November he was stuck in bed, his intestinal woes causing him to moan, "When is this going to stop?" He has yet to fully recover.

Three months earlier, Gwyn Wellborn, 27, of Oregon ate a few spinach salads in the course of a week. She thought she was doing something good for her body. Instead, the meals sent her kidneys into failure.

Those consumers - different ages, genders and time zones - were just two of the more than 300 who were sickened late last year by green leafy vegetables grown in California that contained E. coli bacteria.

The annual number of produce-related outbreaks doubled in the United States from 1998 to 2004.

That development combined with last year's E. coli scares has put pressure on the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the produce industry, to step up standards to keep consumers safe.

Last week, the FDA advised the nation's 250 fruit and vegetable packers to establish better procedures to reduce pathogen outbreaks in the $12 billon fresh-cut produce industry. Suggestions range from frequent lab testing to workers' washing their hands more often.

In 2004, there were 85 produce-related pathogen outbreaks, nearly double the number of six years earlier, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The consumer group has criticized federal health officials and the California farming industry for not establishing mandatory food-safety regulations at the farm level.

Chief among the problems - chaos. No fewer than 15 government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, administer and enforce 30 laws related to food safety.

The FDA is responsible for regulating 80 percent of the nation's food supply, including produce - yet it spends less money on food safety than the USDA, which regulates beef and poultry.

Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, introduced legislation calling for one super agency to oversee food safety.

No one knows shortcomings of food safety more than Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney involved in some of the food industry's most high profile food-poisoning cases.

In September, Marler filed a lawsuit, on behalf of Oregon spinach eater Wellborn, who was hospitalized for six days.

Later that same night - more than four hours after Marler's lawsuit - the CDC declared a multistate outbreak tied to pre-packaged spinach. The next day, Natural Selection Foods, of San Juan Bautista, Calif., told consumers to toss its spinach products.

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