Protecting our produce

Our view: More-effective safety rules are needed

June 11, 2008

In Maryland and across the nation, tomatoes have been missing from salads, BLTs, burgers and salsa after a salmonella warning from the Food and Drug Administration that prompted supermarkets and restaurants to yank the fruit from their shelves and menus. While the FDA's alert was welcome, the agency's leaders should acknowledge that the salmonella outbreak, which has led to the infection of 145 Americans and hospitalization of 23 since mid-April, offers fresh evidence that not enough is done to keep America's food safe.

Last year, the Bush administration promised to do better. After a long delay and sparring with Congress, this week the administration proposed spending an extra $275 million to better protect the food we eat. But consumer advocates and food trade groups say FDA officials have yet to offer a detailed plan explaining just how they intend to improve food safety and question whether the added money is sufficient to achieve adequate protection. The FDA should explain just how it plans to do the job.

Tomatoes are a good example. Many growers follow voluntary guidelines to guard their produce from possible sources of infection, such as polluted water or fertilizer. But safety advocates say the standards should be mandatory. Last year, lettuce growers struggled to cope with another widespread infection. The costs of such outbreaks in lost sales for growers, groceries and restaurants is estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, not to mention the suffering of the victims. The sources of the current salmonella infection in at least 16 states has yet to be determined.

Ensuring food safety is not just a domestic problem. A flood of foreign food and drugs enters the country every year, and Bush administration officials say there is no way to inspect it all. FDA officials have promised to use the extra $275 million to hire hundreds of new workers and to open offices in China, India and Central America and provide more inspections of food and medical production facilities in those countries. Congress should not be satisfied with promises. It should demand a comprehensive plan for protecting the nation's food supply and a realistic assessment of its cost.

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