Congress

Administration seeks to boost food-safety efforts

Peanut butter was a problem last year.
Peanut butter was a problem last year. Darrell Wong/Fresno Bee/MCT

WASHINGTON -- Food safety efforts are accelerating across many fronts after repeated finds of tainted California crops.

The Obama administration wants to add hundreds of new inspectors. Some lawmakers want to shift food safety responsibilities among different agencies. And soon, California lettuce and spinach producers could extend their self-imposed safety standards nationwide.

"The idea is to get us all under one umbrella, so everybody is doing the same thing," Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of the California Leafy Green Products organization, said Thursday. "Right now, we're getting a patchwork quilt of programs."

California's leafy green industry established the Sacramento-based marketing order in 2007, after at least three people died and several hundred fell ill upon eating contaminated spinach. Though voluntary, the marketing order covers nearly all the leafy greens commercially grown in the state.

The 118 member companies of California Leafy Green Products provide the annual budget of roughly $3 million. They agree to meet certain safety practices and to undergo required safety audits.

The idea is about to go nationwide.

The Agriculture Department later this month anticipates receiving a formal proposal for a national leafy greens agreement. If approved, the national program would apply the California growers' self-governance model to every state. It also would cover imports.

"(It) is a substantial food safety program, and we had to gear up to meet its challenges," Modesto-area farmer Ron Ratto told the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee Thursday.

David R. Shipman, acting administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service, told the House panel that "public backing for such a (nationwide) measure could be favorable if certain issues, such as the cost and impact on small entities ... were addressed."

Chaired by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, the House subcommittee convened Thursday's hearing amid ongoing concerns voiced by consumers and farmers alike. As many as 73,000 U.S. residents get sick annually due to e. coli bacteria similar to that which contaminated the California spinach, the Centers for Disease Control estimates. Farmers, in turn, lose business when consumers become fearful. California leafy green producers estimate they lost upward of $100 million following the 2006 outbreak.

More recently, the Centers for Disease Control determined that pistachios contaminated with Salmonella had been traced to Setton Pistachio in the San Joaquin Valley town of Terra Bella. The discovery prompted a recall in April of more than 2 million pounds of nuts.

The Obama administration wants an additional $259 million to cover food safety efforts next year, as part of a larger 19 percent increase sought for the FDA's budget. The money would support 400-plus additional food safety staffers.

The administration also has established a working group now compiling recommendations about updating food safety laws. One proposed legislative rewrite, co-authored by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, already has been introduced while others are in the works.

"Overall, I believe consumer confidence in fresh produce is growing and stronger than ever," Cardoza said. "But unfortunately, it will only take one incident to break down this progress (and) move us back to square one."

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