In recent months, repeated outbreaks of food-borne illness have been linked to raw fruits and vegetables. Last summer, E. coli in bagged spinach killed three people and sickened 206 others in 26 states and Canada. Recently, more than 200 people became ill from green onions served at Taco Bell restaurants in New York, New Jersey and four other states.
While these two outbreaks received extensive media coverage, there were at least seven other produce-related recalls during that time span that didn’t make national headlines. But, the spinach outbreak was the 20th outbreak of E. coli in fresh produce since 1995, according to a fact sheet, Weaknesses in FDA’s Food Safety System issued by Rep. Henry A. Waxman [D-CA]. And produce-related outbreaks have doubled from 44 outbreaks in 1998 to 86 in 2004.
Officials expect this trend to continue to rise as health-conscious consumers eat more fruits and vegetables—although sales in the spinach and fresh-cut categories took a nose dive after the Food and Drug Administration urged people to avoid consuming spinach during the recall. In fact, the FDA drew some fire for not acting quickly enough in identifying the source and now three produce industry groups, Western Growers, United Fresh Produce Association and Produce Marketing Association, are calling for government regulations.
Western Growers has already met with state officials in California to draw up an agreement that would call for a formal system of farm inspections, regulations of water and soil quality, and sanitation. The agreement may be ready by spring.
Regulations are a good idea, since food plants are inspected by the FDA on average about once every 10 years. Rep. Waxman’s fact sheet points out a number of weaknesses in the FDA’s food safety system. Consider these:
Under funding: “Food safety funding has not kept pace with rising costs and new responsibilities. Funds for FDA food programs have risen from $407 million in 2003 to $439 million in 2006, but the increase has not been enough to keep up with rising costs. In fact, the agency’s food division operated under a shortfall of $135 million in 2006 due to personnel costs and new terrorism responsibilities.”
- Lack of inspectors: “FDA inspectors are responsible for overseeing approximately 210,000 domestic food establishments. Since 2003, the number of field staff has dropped by 12 percent.”
- Fewer inspections: “In 1972, the FDA conducted approximately 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2003, the FDA conducted only 13,567 inspections. This number is expected to drop to 9,255 this year. That’s a 32 percent drop in federal inspections since 2003 and an 81 percent drop since 1982.”
To find out more about this topic, read this issue’s cover story, “Recalls On The Rise,” [page 20] where we take an in-depth look at the bagged spinach outbreak, which involved Natural Selection Foods, and how the company used supply chain technology to quickly narrow down the source of contamination to four fields.
We’d like to wish all of you a very healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.
See you in 2007, when we celebrate our 10th anniversary.