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E. coli aftermath: Where is the accountability?

Tougher rules are required, say frustrated consumer groups

The E. coli outbreak is no longer headline news. Spinach is back at the supermarket and in restaurant salads. For most of us, things are back to normal.

But for Mike Bandy of Ramsey, Ill., the nightmare continues. His wife Suzanne is in the hospital fighting for her life. The E. coli she got from the bagged spinach she ate has attacked her kidneys and nervous system. She needs a plasma transfusion every day and kidney dialysis three times a week. Doctors say even if the treatments work, Suzanne, 58, is likely to have permanent kidney damage.

“I’m just so terribly angry that a contaminated product like this could be put out on the open market and affect so many people,” a frustrated Mike Bandy told me. “There has to be some responsibility here.”

Where are we right now?

Two weeks ago, the Government Organization Committee of the California State legislature held a hearing to ask the key question: Where are we right now?

“We have a lot of work to do,” says State Senator Dean Florez, who chairs the committee. “We have not really kept our eye on the ball.” He told me the committee was “quite shocked” that more hasn’t been done to make sure the produce headed to market is safe.

There are 120,000 farms and processing plants in California. But according to Sen. Florez, there are only three state inspectors and 30 FDA inspectors to oversee them all. “That simply isn’t going to make anyone feel better that the spinach and lettuce that comes out of California is safe to eat,” Florez, a Democrat, says.

Has anything changed?

Farmers and processors in California, especially those in the Salinas Valley, where the tainted spinach was grown, have already started additional and more frequent testing. That’s a “positive step” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union. But she’s quick to add that the cause of the problem still exists and voluntary measures “don’t give us the assurance we need.”

“Nothing’s really changed,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “There are still no mandatory standards and FDA does not have new inspectors that are going to actually check that the growers are doing the right thing.”

Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, responds by saying scientists must figure out what went wrong before the agency can decide what to do to prevent future outbreaks. In the meantime, he says, “fresh produce in the United States is as safe now as it was before the outbreak.”

More needs to be done

With 20 E. coli outbreaks in spinach, lettuce and other salad greens since 1995, it’s clear more needs to be done. Nothing can completely eliminate the E. coli problem, but Dr. Acheson agrees more testing must be done. The agency will also consider whether new food safety regulations or guidelines are needed.

Consumer groups say tougher rules are required. They want the federal government to set minimum safety standards that everyone must follow and develop a system for monitoring the industry to insure these standards are met.

“Right now this is a system of the industry policing itself,” notes consumer advocate Caroline Smith DeWaal. “This isn’t good enough.”

But will farmers accept tougher rules and increased inspection? Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm organization, says it’s too early to be talking about new regulations. That can’t happen, he says, until they figure out what caused this outbreak.

A new food safety agency?

Under the current system, the Department of Agriculture regulates meat, poultry, and processed eggs. The Food and Drug Administration handles all other food products. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D- Ill.) wants all food safety issues to be handled by one agency. His Safe Food Act, which he introduced back in 2005, would do just that.

Consumer groups support the idea of a single food safety agency. They say the system would work a lot better that way.

The FDA's Acheson tells me he believes the current system is working and he isn’t sure it should be changed. Things aren’t perfect and more needs to be done, he admits. But he says the food supply “is probably safer than it’s ever been.”

FDA plans to hold a public meeting by the end of the year or early 2007 to share what’s been learned about the spinach outbreak. Dr. Acheson says the goal is to address the problem and examine possible fixes.

What’s a consumer to do?

You still have to eat your fruits and vegetables, despite the slight risk they could make you sick. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says you should assume all fresh produce could be contaminated. So refrigerate it right away and don’t let it sit around at room temperature for too long. At Consumers Union, Jean Halloran now advises people who are vulnerable, such as those with a compromised immune system “to consider just eating cooked vegetables.” If you’re a healthy adult, she says, “I think you can really go on eating normally at this point.”

Mike Bandy doesn’t blame the government for what happened to his wife. But he does want to see some good result from all the suffering that’s taken place across the country. “I would love to see some safeguards put into effect and some serious sanctions for failure to comply with those safeguards.”

Mike, I couldn’t have said it any better.

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