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E. Coli outbreak reveals lapses in food inspection

Agriculture industry loosely regulated


San Jose Mercury News (California)

Mary Anne Ostrom, Lisa Krieger and Ken McLaughlin

The expanding E. coli spinach outbreak, which now has sickened 146 victims in 23 states, is prompting calls for an overhaul of how food inspection is done in the United States, with a focus on getting rid of a patchwork approach that leads to loopholes and leaves the industry mostly policing itself.

The demands from top consumer groups and others came as the federal Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that a bag of spinach found in the refrigerator of a sickened New Mexico resident definitively links the outbreak to Natural Selection Foods. The San Juan Bautista company has already recalled nearly three dozen brands of spinach that it processes.

Through codes on the bag, the FDA has traced the spinach back to a growing region encompassing Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties.

Still, officials recommend that consumers avoid eating any fresh spinach products.

The unfolding mystery has shed a spotlight on some weak links in the nation's food safety program, some consumer groups and agriculture experts said Wednesday.

``It's a very serious problem,'' said Jean Halloran, director of the food policy initiative for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. ``Things fall through the cracks, and they can't make a coordinated attack on a problem or share information or allocate resources properly.''

In Salinas Valley, the source of eight earlier separate outbreaks of E. coli since 1995, spinach and lettuce growers rarely see state or federal inspectors. A Lettuce Safety Initiative, launched by the FDA and California in the past few months, has now been expanded to include spinach.

But typically government inspectors show up only when there is a problem. The industry lives by voluntary rules set forth by government and university experts, known as ``good agricultural practices.'' But those recommendations, ranging from watering and fertilizing practices to field-hand sanitation and pest control, are only voluntary.

While farmers contend they adopt those suggestions and find new technologies on their own to keep their crops safe, government regulators are not keeping a close eye.

The FDA and state inspectors check only infrequently, if at all, to monitor the complex chain of events from the planter to processor to the produce section.

``It's always easy after the fact to say more should have been done.

Clearly, more should have been done,'' said David Acheson of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. ``We're going to learn from this.''

State and federal officials are expected to call for new rules.

But now growers, processors, government regulators and consumer groups paint a picture of a loosely regulated industry.

Consider that 97 percent of irrigation water used in the Salinas Valley comes from private wells. But there is no mandatory inspection of those wells. Irrigation water is only one of several water sources investigators are looking at in trying to explain the latest outbreak.

Cal-OSHA is responsible for checking field sanitation, focusing on rules, that for example, require one port-a-potty for every 20 workers. But with thousands of farms in the state, it on average conducts between 800 and 1,200 annual inspections.

The state Department of Health Services is charged with inspecting processing facilities annually, but the California Department of Food and Agriculture generally does not inspect farms unless there is a problem, state officials say. The FDA, says Halloran, makes site visits about every five years.

``Clearly we've got a job to do and we're working to our upmost ability. We talk a lot and share information'' between agencies, said Acheson, who called the nation's food supply ``one of the safest in the world.''

Farmers and agriculture experts say most Salinas-area farmers and processors do participate in self-policing programs in which third-party, independent auditors routinely check their practices and issue a rating.

Processors, too, rely on the ratings, usually based on the voluntary good agricultural practices, to evaluate growers from which they will accept produce. And the shippers use the ratings because typically their name goes on the product -- and they have the most to lose.

Natural Selection Foods said Wednesday that its independent testing firm took samples from the plant Friday and has found no presence of E. coli bacteria in its San Juan Bautista plant. Federal and state test results are pending, the company said.

Farmers, too, are testing. Third-generation farmer John Baillie, who does not grow spinach on 1,000 his acres around Salinas Valley, says that over the past few years he has stepped up his use of third-party companies to test his well water and soil four times a year.

With the mystery of how Salinas-area spinach got tainted unsolved, at least one university-backed study is getting under way to look at the issues, something welcomed by the industry.

``As much as everyone works hard toward having a comprehensive approach to a food safety program, there is always the chance for human error and lapses in attentiveness,'' said Trevor V. Suslow, a cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Vegetable Crops at the University of California-Davis.

``There is not enough specific information that growers can actually look at -- that `if I do this,' I can be assured of all aspects of food safety.''

Curtis Weeks, general manager of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, said 97 percent of the water used for irrigation in the Salinas Valley comes from private wells. The remainder comes from recycled sewage water.

``There's no state program requiring that those wells be tested,'' said Eric Senter, an engineer and well expert with the state Department of Water Resources.

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