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Safe Produce Means Government Oversight


Guest commentary

March 18, 2007

In January, our mother, Betty Howard, died after a five-month health battle initially caused by her eating spinach contaminated by E. coli 0157:H7 last September. While the cause of death has not officially been listed as E. coli, we know one thing: After living independently until age 82, on Sept. 7, 2006, our mother walked into the hospital with E. coli, and she never walked again.

She told us it felt like she had been run over by a car, without the bruises. She expressed to us how she never wanted anyone to have to go through what she went through. The three of us carried our mother to her final resting place on Feb. 1.

We have now learned more about E. coli than anyone should have to know. There have been more than 20 E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks linked to leafy green produce originating from farms in California. Just the two outbreaks in 2006 alone caused 280 people to get sick with confirmed illnesses, 128 of whom were hospitalized and 33 of whom contracted hemolytic uremic syndrome, a condition that can cause permanent kidney damage and death. Five died.

Additionally, experts believe that 10 times the number of the confirmed cases actually become sick in similar outbreaks. While we can't know what each affected family has gone through, we know our family is still feeling the effects of that illness and that for most families it is a devastating experience.

We have therefore followed with great interest the latest proposals to ensure a safer food supply for our nation. Following our recent firsthand and personal experience, it is easy for us to believe that there is no one responsible for improving our country's food safety system. After more than 20 outbreaks, multiple deaths and a general lack of trust in the food we are provided to eat, you would think that we are way overdue for decisive and effective action. Recently, however, former U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration food safety official Michael Taylor acknowledged that "there's no one in charge in the federal food safety system."

That has to change.

Produce growers have recently proposed a "marketing agreement" to solve the problem of E. coli and similar dangerous bacteria in fresh produce. This agreement would require growers to follow federally recommended "good agriculture practices" in order to be able to put a "best practices" seal on the produce in the stores. Our problem with just following this approach is that the company's spinach our mother ate, according to their own news release, "has always used good agriculture practices in all its growing operations."

In other words, the contaminated spinach our mother consumed had most likely already been grown in conditions consistent with the "good agriculture practices" and would therefore have been eligible for the "best practices" label on the package. This proposed agreement to promote the use of the term, by itself, does not sound to us like it is making our nation's food supply safer for anyone.

In February, California state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, proposed three bills that could be a starting point for more effective produce safety regulation. We sent a letter to Florez explaining that we wished we could have been there for the announcement but that was the day we buried our mother. We also made it very clear that this is not a partisan politics issue. It is not a government-vs.-grower issue. The issue is instead very simple: Making the nation's food supply safer is in the best interest of 300 million Americans.

One of the Florez bills would enable the California Department of Health Services to effectively manage and protect public safety in the event of a similar outbreak by permitting DHS inspectors to investigate possible outbreaks, and, if necessary, to recall or quarantine potentially dangerous produce. Another would require DHS to enact regulations mandating that growers use the good agriculture practices as opposed to simply recommending their use, and that all growers follow a set of minimum uniform standards, subject to substantial enforcement penalties.

The third bill would require that growers create and implement an effective trace-back system that would allow DHS to trace effectively and quickly potentially dangerous produce to its source, thereby reducing the risk that a small outbreak would grow into a far greater one.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the proposed legislation is that it allows the whole issue of produce safety to be openly discussed. It would force all affected parties, including the growers, to address a bigger and broader perspective. This is something that no voluntary trade marketing agreement can do. Show me, for instance, where a spinach grower working in a voluntary framework would have jurisdiction over the activities of a cattle rancher.

Assemblywoman Anna Caballero summarized the complexity of the problem when she told the Salinas Californian, "The scientists need to study all the pathways" to determine how the pathogen ends up on plants and to determine whether the toxins are on the inside or outside of the plants.

However, we don't have time anymore for a lot of studies. Now is the time to start taking action.

There are studies that say the problem is that the process of taking cattle off hay and feeding them grain before they are slaughtered has caused the acidity levels to soar and E. coli to grow in cattle. In fairness, we are sure there are studies that have an opposing view. But in either case, is a voluntary marketing agreement among some of the growers going to practically deal with the problem, or does our nation need a broader and more substantive solution?

We need to work together to make the nation's food supply safe. The only entity capable of having the broad jurisdiction to successfully address the problem is a governmental body. It simply cannot be accomplished by a handful of growers getting together in a room, endorsing what they already are doing, and then asking to "trust us."

We can tell you firsthand what not finding a solution means. It means getting a call that your loved one is at the hospital and may not make it, so you better come quickly. It means that when you get there you suit up in bio-hazard clothes just to say hello. It means you can't rub your mother's forehead and tell her it will get better. For some, it means feeling the weight of a casket as you carry your loved one to a final resting place, trying to find the words to say goodbye.

We have 300 million Americans depending on the nation's food producers. We have the latest technology, state-of-the-art farming practices, and an infrastructure of hard-working Americans who get products to our stores and around the world every day. We know that there are enough great ideas out there to solve this problem. Yes, it will take work, setting aside party partisanship, setting aside egos. We have no choice but to do this.


Editor's note Authorities in Washington say E. coli likely contributed to the death of Betty Howard, whose sons wrote this piece. The family's lawyer, William Marler, says the insurance company for Dole Food covered her medical costs after she ate tainted spinach last fall. Darryl Howard is a research consultant in Salem, Ore., and longtime Republican Party official. He is scheduled to testify Tuesday in San Francisco as part of FDA hearings on produce safety. Brian Howard is a construction manager for a federal contractor in Richland, Wash., and the third brother, Paul, is a Richland jeweler.

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