WASHINGTON—The contaminated spinach that's sickening consumers is emboldening lawmakers who want to strengthen federal defenses against future outbreaks of food-borne illness.
With at least one death and 130 sick patients attributed to California spinach tainted by E. coli, the moment seems ripe for action. That could mean more money for research, more muscle for regulators and reformed oversight of the nation's food supply.
But while past food scares have likewise prompted shakeups, second-guessing and open wallets, federal power remains both limited and complex. Top regulatory positions remain unfilled. And there are multiple federal agencies with overlapping responsibilities coping with a hodge-podge of at least 30 different laws touching on food safety.
And, as shown in a recent failed effort to open a new food-safety center at the University of California at Davis, political impediments can be stubborn.
"There's always a need for these things to be reviewed," Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., said Tuesday, "and with this kind of crisis, it's probably a good thing to be checking in."
Unlike some lawmakers, Farr, whose district includes the Salinas Valley fields where the tainted spinach was grown, does not want a wholesale overhaul of federal regulatory efforts. He does want more money, so scientists can track how the E. coli bacteria usually found in animal intestines made its way into fresh-cut spinach.
"In terms of the emergency response, there's enough money for the short term," Farr said. "I don't think there's enough funding for the long term."
By the numbers, food safety regulation is already big business.
The major federal regulatory agencies devote some $1.7 billion a year and roughly 15,000 employees to enforcing food safety. They do not all wear the same uniform.
The Agriculture Department handles meat, poultry and some eggs. The National Marine Fisheries Service handles seafood. The Environmental Protection Agency oversees pesticides.
The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for fruits and vegetables, so it is investigating the contaminated spinach traced to the Salinas Valley. It's familiar territory: Last month, citing the "recurring outbreaks of E. coli" that have included at least 20 episodes since 1995 linked to spinach or lettuce, the FDA unveiled its "Lettuce Safety Initiative." It includes visits by FDA officials to farms, cooling and packing facilities.
The agency, however, lacks the power to recall tainted produce.
Nor do the different federal agencies all follow the same rules. The Agriculture Department, for instance, inspects canning facilities daily if the plant produces canned beans with meat or chicken. If the canned beans lack meat or chicken, the FDA will inspect the plant between a year and up to every five years.
"Most (experts) agreed that laws and regulations should be modernized to more effectively and efficiently control food safety hazards," the Government Accountability Office noted last year, "but they differed about whether to consolidate food safety functions into a single agency."
Overall, 76 million U.S. residents become sick annually from food-borne illness, more than 325,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 people die. With so many problems, some lawmakers have previously tried to reinforce existing food safety efforts.
They don't always succeed.
Last year, for instance, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein secured a $1 million earmark in a Senate funding bill to establish a Western Center for Food Safety and Defense at UC-Davis. It would have been the first FDA-affiliated center of its kind on the West Coast.
"(It) will play an important role in identifying potential threats and finding solutions to ensure the security of our food supply," Feinstein said at the time.
But when congressional negotiators met to craft a final spending bill, according to sources familiar with the sessions, the proposed UC-Davis food safety center lacked the support of Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., a conservative member of the House GOP leadership. The money was dropped.
A spokesperson for Doolittle's office could not be reached to comment.
The first opportunity for reform or reinforcements for federal food safety efforts will come in the Agriculture Department and FDA funding bill for fiscal 2007. The House is proposing to spend $1.5 billion for the FDA next year, more than last year but slightly less than President Bush had requested. The Senate has not yet approved its version.
The least likely reform would be a wholesale reorganization of the food safety regulatory agencies, even though that is what some believe is most necessary.
New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and a small band of House liberals including Democrats George Miller from California and Jim McDermott from Washington have authored legislation to create a unified Food Safety Administration. It would combine the work of now-disparate agencies; but, with only nine co-sponsors in the House, it is stalled.
"This outbreak highlights the need for a strong food safety inspection system," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., declared Friday in asking for hearings on the bill introduced more than a year ago.
The FDA currently labors under an acting commissioner, as Bush's latest nominee has yet to win Senate confirmation. Various political controversies have kept the permanent FDA position vacant for more than half of Bush's time in office.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): SPINACH
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