Legislation introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) would establish a national program to assure the safety of fresh produce.
The introduction of the Fresh Produce Safety Act comes one year after the biggest recall of fresh produce in American history, when spinach contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 sickened 205 people. More than 100 of those were hospitalized, and at least three people died. And just this week, Dole is recalling romaine salad mix after Canadian tests came back positive for E. coli.
The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest says that after a year's worth of hearings in both the Senate and the House, it is time for Congress to act.
"Americans should be consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables; instead we are scanning our refrigerators looking for bags to discard," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "These continuing outbreaks and recalls are eroding Americans" confidence in fresh produce. It's time for a food safety system that applies the same scrutiny to our farms as we have for other high-risk products like meat and poultry."
The bill would require the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates produce, to assess farms and processing facilities on the basis of risk, and require producers to maintain written hazard control plans. High-risk facilities would be inspected at least once a growing season - a sharp increase from the status quo, where a facility that washes and bags salad greens might only be inspected once every 5 or 10 years. The FDA would also develop standards and practices for manure application, irrigation water, and for excluding domestic animals from fields where produce is grown.
According to a CSPI database of more than 5,000 outbreaks of foodborne illness, produce causes more illnesses than any other category of food. While seafood causes more outbreaks, those outbreaks tend to be much smaller than produce outbreaks. Spinach, tomatoes, berries, lettuces, melons, and many other categories of fruits and vegetables have all been linked to outbreaks of E. coli, Salmonella, or other pathogens - many of which are linked back to animal agriculture.
While consumers can certainly help themselves by peeling or washing produce, in many cases, fruits or vegetables are too contaminated and the damage can't be undone, according to CSPI.
"The primary responsibility for food safety has to begin on the farm," DeWaal said. "The voluntary, self-regulatory efforts of the produce industry have been helpful, but not sufficient. Fortunately, many companies and industry trade groups are now welcoming better government regulation in this area."