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Monday, December 11, 2006

Still hungry? 


A few days ago, I noted that McLane had issued no press release concerning the Taco Bell E. coli situation. Well, now they have. Excerpts:

McLane Foodservice, Inc., the distributor to the Taco Bell restaurants reportedly linked to the recent E. coli outbreak in several northeastern states, announced today that a site investigation by the New Jersey Department of Health and Environmental Services (NJDHES) has found no evidence of improper storage or handling practices by McLane....

"We are extremely pleased the State of New Jersey's investigation appears to have confirmed what we at McLane already believed, namely, that any contamination in all likelihood occurred at a source other than McLane," said Tom Zatina, President of McLane Foodservice. "Because all green onion products arrive to us in sealed cellophane bags inside sealed corrugated boxes, we have felt from the beginning it was highly improbable that McLane caused or contributed to any E. coli contamination."

So the green onions may have been contaminated before McLane (or Taco Bell) even got them. So, let's ask Annys Shin at the Washington Post where the green onions were grown:

The strain that caused September's spinach outbreak, which killed three and sickened about 200, has been found in cattle feces near a California spinach field and in wild pigs that roamed through it.

The source of the Taco Bell outbreak has not been found, but the company suspects green onions -- also from California.

While John and Ken will probably blame the problem on illegal immigration, there are those that say that the government, or the industry, or whoever should do something about it. This issue forms the...um...meat of Shin's article.

The patchwork of federal and state regulations that is supposed to ensure food safety has become less effective as the nation's produce supply has grown increasingly industrial. Three months after the spinach scare, there is no agreement on what should be done to reduce health risks from the nation's fruits and vegetables even as each episode of illness has heightened a sense of urgency....

Although meat and dairy products are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, the safety of fruits and vegetables is the responsibility of the Food and Drug Administration and the states. But they have jurisdiction only over processing plants. Food safety at the farm level is largely self-regulated.

That has left government regulators in the position over the past eight years of nagging the produce industry to improve food safety by publishing voluntary guidelines and sending letters of admonishment.

The FDA's critics say the agency doesn't have the manpower to do more. From 2003 to 2006, the budget for the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has fallen 37 percent, according to agency data. That has meant fewer inspectors and less frequent inspections. In 2005, the FDA conducted 4,573 inspections of domestic food-processing operations. For 2006, the agency said, it hopes to conduct 3,400. There are more than 12,000 such plants in the nation.

"The reality of FDA's situation is they don't have the basic inspectors to inspect the food supply they're in charge of," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They just don't have the people . . . to manage this problem at the farm level."

In mid-November, the CSPI petitioned the FDA, as well as the state of California, to set mandatory safety standards for fruits and vegetables. Consumer advocates also want Congress to give the agency more resources and enforcement powers.

Think about this for a moment from an anti-vegetarian perspective. It turns out that so-called healthy vegetarian fare is less regulated than evil meat and dairy output. (Listen to the baby seal clubbers chortle.)

Speaking of baby seal clubbers, the non-neo-conservatives who believe that private industry can solve all problems will be happy to know that private industry is trying to get its act together:

In October, executives of eight supermarket chains and distributors, including Safeway, Sysco, Wegmans and Kroger, sent a letter to growers and packers, demanding that they develop a food safety program for lettuce and other leafy greens by Dec. 15. The program has been drafted but is still being reviewed by regulators.

Not content to let the growers write their own standards, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents large retailers and wholesalers, and the National Restaurant Association are developing separate guidelines to update those used by private auditors.

And the neo-conservatives will be happy to know that other segments of private industry want government to solve the problem:

The growers, led by two trade groups, Western Growers and the United Fresh Produce Association, have responded with standards that government regulators would enforce through a marketing order -- an agreement farmers pay to participate in designed to stabilize market conditions for certain commodities. Such orders are enforced by the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service, not the FDA, and food safety is not typically their main purpose.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is considering the growers' proposal and could put an order in place as early as late January, spokesman Steve Lyle said.

The federal Agricultural Marketing Service hasn't responded yet, a Western Growers spokesman said.

Officials at the FDA who are reviewing the proposal have so far welcomed the market-order approach as part of the solution. "If you look at what might be able to happen before next growing season . . . a rule is not a practical proposition," Acheson said.

It's enough to make you sick.

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

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