Food safety bill: Spinach gets new oversight, but not beef

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 30, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Months after her 2-year-old son died from eating a fast-food hamburger tainted with E. coli in January 1993, Diana Nole of Gig Harbor, Wash., went to Capitol Hill and asked Congress to overhaul the nation's food-safety laws.

Now Congress could be on the verge of passing a sweeping measure that Nole and others say is a "step forward" but falls short of what's truly needed.

The Senate Tuesday passed a bill designed to give the Food and Drug Administration new powers to protect consumers from unsafe food. The measure was approved 73-25, and an effort is under way to reconcile it quickly with a more stringent version approved by the House of Representatives before the lame-duck session of Congress ends. President Barack Obama has indicated he'd sign the bill.

"This legislation means that parents who tell their kids to eat their spinach can be assured it won't make them sick," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who as the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wrote the bill, referring to a more recent e-coli outbreak traced to spinach.

However, the measure does nothing to sort out the overlapping jurisdictions among the FDA and other federal agencies that regulate food safety. The new bill doesn't cover meat, poultry and eggs because the Department of Agriculture regulates them.

The Senate bill would give the FDA new powers to recall tainted food, increase inspections of food processors and impose tougher food-safety standards on producers.

The action came after contaminated eggs, peanuts and produce sickened hundreds of people this year, and more than 550 million eggs suspected of salmonella contamination were recalled.

But the measure requires the FDA to inspect what it defines as "high risk" producers only once every three years. The bill also exempts small farms from the new requirements.

Even so, backers of the legislation said it represents a major overhaul and were quick to point out that it received bipartisan support. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne illnesses sicken 76 million Americans every year; 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 — 14 a day — die.

For Nole, the passage of time has helped ease the pain of her son's death, but it remains.

Michael Nole was the first of three children in Washington state to die after eating contaminated and undercooked meat from Jack in the Box restaurants. More than 600 people were sickened and more than 100 were hospitalized.

"It's easier than it was," his mother said. "Of course I think of him every day. I see him in my other kids."

Nole and her husband often visit their son's grave on his birthday, which is Dec. 9.

The Noles have two other children, boys 17 and 13, and much of their energy is focused on raising them rather than advocating for new food-safety laws. But she still follows the legislation and was reading the Senate bill over lunch Tuesday. "It's a step forward," she said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is also a member of the committee.

"Today marks a bittersweet and long-overdue victory for the families and individuals that were affected by the E. coli outbreak that shook Washington state and the Northwest in 1993," Murray said. "This legislation is the first food-safety legislation to pass in decades and will go a long way to making sure the U.S. continues to have the safest food supply in the world."

Others, including Nole, aren't so sure.

Nole said she was especially bothered that the bill didn't cover meat, poultry and eggs. She also said that all farms, regardless of size or whether they were organic, should be covered.

"I'm glad to see it is still moving forward," she said of the effort to secure tougher food-safety regulations. "But I don't trust the government. It's up to the consumer."

Nole is one of the founders of a food safety group called Safe Tables Our Priority. Nancy Donley, the president of the group, said the Senate bill could have been better but that it nonetheless would improve food safety.

"The bottom line is we believe it will save lives, but we still have a few issues," Donley said, adding she thought the bill lacked the "teeth" to be effective.

Nole said she hadn't been active lately with Safe Tables Our Priority, but that could change when her two sons are grown.

"You have two choices in life," she said. "You can let it beat you or you can beat it. I decided it wouldn't beat me."

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