The hepatitis A outbreak at a Beaver County restaurant is just the latest, and perhaps most serious, example of a growing number of produce-related outbreaks that some view as an indictment of government regulators.
There were 76 food-borne-illness outbreaks stemming from produce in 2000, and together, they caused 3,981 illnesses, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., group. In 1997, there were just 29 produce-related outbreaks with 2,449 illnesses.
The numbers suggest problems in staffing levels at the Food and Drug Administration and the agency's legal authority to regulate produce growers, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Washington group.
"I think, clearly, FDA, given its current budget and focus on bioterrorism over the last few years, has really been unable to reverse this," she said. "It's clear that fruits and vegetables are a growing cause of food poisoning outbreaks."
But others argue the growth reflects growing consumer demands for fresh produce.
Still others say the statistics on produce-related outbreaks are misleading because many of the cases involved contamination from other sources, such as restaurant workers, rather than problems on the farm, said Kathy Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association in Washington, D.C.
Contaminated produce is just one piece of the country's overall food-borne disease problem, which causes approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A sample of 1,003 imported fresh produce items analyzed in 1999 and 2000 by the FDA found contamination in 44 items. The study found only a few tainted scallions, the product blamed for the Beaver County outbreak. Contamination was more common on cilantro and cantaloupe.
The numbers in that report alone should have been a wake-up call for the FDA, said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. But they are particularly troubling in light of an FDA study begun in 2000 that found fewer contamination problems in domestic produce, Foreman said.
Water used on farms in developing countries often isn't as clean as on U.S. farms, Foreman said, so the FDA needs more power to regulate international growers.
"If you want to send meat in to the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has to inspect your plant and declare that the country's inspection system is equivalent to ours and that the individual plant is equivalent to a plant here," said Foreman, who was assistant secretary of agriculture for meat, poultry and egg inspection from 1977 to 1981.
The FDA regulates fruits, vegetables, fish and processed food, while the USDA inspects meat, poultry and eggs in the shell. But the USDA has a more robust inspection staff, Foreman said.
"I'm all in favor of world trade," she said. "But I think Americans have a right to demand that fruits and vegetables that come into this country from other countries be raised and packaged and shipped with the same practices that American growers use."
But Means, from the produce industry trade group, said critics wrongly suggested a dichotomy between growers in the United States and other countries. Potable water isn't always used on farms in Mexico, Means acknowledged, but that's also true here.
"Few people are irrigating with city water and we probably don't want them to," Means said. "The requirements for imported foods are the same as for domestically grown foods."
But Frankel, director of the trade group known as the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, contended that FDA regulation of foreign farms is already tougher than of domestic growers. Imported fruits and vegetables are nine times more likely to be inspected by FDA than domestic produce, he said.
Joe Baca, a food safety official with the FDA, said the overall number of outbreaks may be rising in part because regulators are getting better at detecting problems. That can drive up numbers.
The FDA study of imported food produce contamination is difficult to interpret because the sample size was so small, Baca said. Plus, there haven't been other studies to provide context about the trend in produce contamination, he said.
"The numbers right now, in terms of investigators, are higher than they have been in many years," Baca said. "We have hired a large number of people over the last couple years and we've put a lot of those folks on food imports."
There's less chance of contamination with produce grown on U.S. farms, said Dean Cliver, a food safety professor at University of California-Davis. But the growing season here precludes fresh produce in grocery stores and restaurants throughout the year.
While some critics say the outbreak numbers argue for better regulation, Cliver said it's unrealistic to expect a risk-free food supply. Regulation drives up the cost of food at a time when many are going hungry, he said.
A better response to outbreaks like the one in Beaver County, he suggested, might be to increase the number of people vaccinated against hepatitis A.
Consumers have contributed to the rise in contamination cases, he added. "This is about not wanting food that's been frozen, canned or processed in any way. There's a virtual cult of eating raw these days."
But DeWaal said the trend isn't a passing fancy. Safety systems that could eliminate many of the hazards would also improve living conditions for people in those countries.
"When we're dealing with foreign farms, FDA should have the authority to go to those farms and ensure that they have safe water and sanitation systems for the workers that will help to keep the produce safe," she said. "If farms can't deliver on that, they shouldn't be shipping food internationally."