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Lettuce tied to latest E. coli cases

Public health officials in Michigan have fingered a brand of shredded and chopped iceberg lettuce as the likely source of an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that has sickened consumers in several states.

The lettuce, distributed nationally by Detroit-based vendor Aunt Mid's Produce Co., is being linked to 26 cases in Michigan, as well as illnesses in Illinois, New York, Ohio and Oregon.

"Even though the investigation is ongoing, available evidence is strongly pointing to iceberg lettuce," said Dr. Gregory Holzman, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Community Health.

His agency issued a public health alert Friday afternoon as a precautionary measure. It says the recent E. coli illnesses are thought to be associated with bagged, industrial-sized packages of iceberg lettuce sold to restaurants and institutions.

There is no evidence the bagged lettuce at grocery stores is affected. Other distributing outlets could be identified, officials said, and product trace-back and additional test results are still in progress.

The news came the same day that a government report outlined the Food and Drug Administration's problems in keeping up with its food safety enforcement mandates.

The report by Government Accountability Office investigators said the FDA's efforts to combat food-borne illness are hampered by infrequent inspections and poor enforcement at fresh produce processing plants.

Stricter growing standards

But a Food and Drug Administration official said Friday that the nation's fresh produce would be safer if U.S. farmers were required to adopt strict standards for growing leafy greens similar to industry-written ones devised for California growers.

Dr. David Acheson said the FDA would need authority from Congress to enact "preventative controls" over production of the nation's fresh produce like those it has in place for seafood and fresh juice.

"Having Congress give us explicit authority makes it a much more robust approach and gives more chance of success," said Acheson, the commissioner for foods.

He said the FDA agreed with many of the findings of the report and began addressing them before it was published. Acheson said in a written statement Friday that at least two of the GAO's recommendations, including giving the agency enhanced access to food records during emergencies, are included in the FDA's 10-month-old Food Protection Plan. The strategy to protect food from intentional and unintentional contamination also involves more closely working with states' departments of food and agriculture.

"FDA will soon be awarding grants to states to further food and feed safety," said Acheson, adding that it is "one of the many steps we are taking to transform food protection."

The 59-page report, drafted as salmonella sickened 1,300 people in 43 states over the summer, cited previously unpublished FDA figures showing that 14 people died and 10,253 were sickened in 96 outbreaks associated with fresh produce from 1996 through 2006.

The report said the FDA delayed implementing safety measures for the fast-growing bagged produce market because of its focus on counterterrorism and investigations into the outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. The result, the report said, will be a six-year delay in fresh-cut produce guidelines.

The FDA has focused its testing efforts on pesticide residue, rather than microbial contamination such as E. coli. In 2007, 82 percent of all produce samples underwent pesticide testing, while 18 percent were tested for microbial contamination.

Defense of industry measures

The cut produce industry is funding studies into potential causes of contamination, especially in leafy greens. New FDA studies on potential wildlife transmission of E. coli to leafy greens are still two years from completion.

After the E.coli outbreak, California growers and processors wrote their own guidelines for production to avoid further loss in consumer confidence. Enforced by inspectors from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, it sets buffer zones around fields to reduce the risk of feces contamination from wildlife and establishes a safe distance between produce and cattle grazing operations and feedlots.

On Friday, California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement CEO Scott Horsfall hadn't had an opportunity to read the report but defended the leafy greens industry's measures to guarantee a safe food supply and said the call for more regulation doesn't take into account the measures already being enforced.

"There's a lot that's been done in the last two years to move the goal of food safety further down the field," he said. "We've done a lot to raise the bar on food safety."

The voluntary compliance program, which establishes a checklist of good agricultural practices, has been adopted by 99 percent of the leafy greens producers in California, he said, and while it was created by the industry, the program is audited by government agents.

Local safety efforts

Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of the Central Coast, criticized the implication that government intervention is the best way to ensure a safe food supply, particularly in an era where the FDA is grossly understaffed to handle its workload.

"I find it ironic that people value the role of the government when it suits their purpose, and devalue it when it doesn't," he said. "Would this be the same FDA that was categorically wrong about the whole tomato situation? What I don't like about the report is that there's an inference that if the FDA were more involved, things would be better."

He said the FDA's limited resources are most needed in the inspection of products imported by non-American firms that have less stringent food safety programs than domestic companies.

"When it comes to the Salinas Valley and what we do, I would contend that it's fundamentally unnecessary," he said. "Our industry aggressively responded because we understood it was in our best interest and the right thing to do."

In addition to the Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement, Donohue said, the strict safety mandates of third-party buyers, including the big grocery chains and the restaurant industry, add an additional layer of audits upon the industry.

"I wouldn't want to downplay the role of government in any way," he said, "but you have to be realistic about available resources, where the needs are, because every level of government has to make choices."

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