WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration on Monday announced new steps to strengthen the safety of the nation's food supply, hoping to avoid episodes such as the recent exposure of schoolchildren in California and elsewhere to frozen strawberries contaminated with the hepatitis A virus.
Perhaps most significant, the new program will attempt to fill existing gaps in the food protection system that have been the source of most of the recent problems.
For example, the initiative includes a plan to extend government inspection practices now used for meat, seafood and poultry to the manufacture of fruit and vegetable juices. Separately, federal agencies will attempt to develop new measures to prevent food-borne illnesses from egg products and produce, which in the past have proved particularly difficult to detect and control.
It also includes steps to increase the number of seafood inspectors and improve the monitoring of imported foods.
"When children reach for a piece of food, parents deserve to have peace of mind," said Vice President Al Gore, who announced the proposed $43.2-million program to an audience that included victims of recent food-borne disease outbreaks.
Epidemiologists view enhanced research and surveillance as vital at a time when officials are encouraging Americans to eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry.
The program, meant to build on existing safety procedures, was first announced in January by President Clinton. It was drafted by the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, all of which share jurisdiction over food safety and regulation.
Congress must approve the money to implement the program as part of the budget for the federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
Food safety has taken on higher priority around the world in the wake of recent outbreaks traced to an array of products from beef to lettuce to berries.
In an episode last year, for instance, dozens of children and adults in several states and Canada became sick--and one Colorado toddler died--after exposure to deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria from unpasteurized apple juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc., a company based in Half Moon Bay on the Northern California coast.
More than 9,000 Los Angeles-area schoolchildren and adults were exposed in April to Mexican strawberries that were found to have been contaminated with hepatitis A, which produces flu-like symptoms and can be fatal. The berries were sliced and frozen by a San Diego processor.
Investigators have yet to find either source of contamination.
The new initiative proposes to use $16.5 million to fund new research to develop better scientific tests to detect organisms that cannot easily be identified in contaminated food. Those would include hepatitis A and cyclospora, an elusive parasite that sickened about 1,000 people in the United States and Canada last year. That problem was initially traced to California strawberries, which suffered a devastating setback in sales, but later was blamed on raspberries from Guatemala.
The task of food sleuths is made more difficult by the emergence of new forms of disease-causing microbes. E. coli O157:H7, for example, was discovered only in 1982. It was originally thought to exist only in animal products but now has been linked with apple juice and lettuce.
The new program also would increase to eight from five the number of surveillance sites whose mandate is to aggressively look for episodes of food-borne diseases. The sole California site, operated by the state Department of Health Services and UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, now covers only the Bay Area. But a budget proposal in the California Legislature would add $3 million to extend the program statewide, according to Scott Lewis, a spokesman for Health Services in Sacramento.
The initiative also provides for a new public education campaign to teach consumers and other food preparers how to safely handle food.
Many people understand, Gore noted, that raw food should be cooked to destroy harmful organisms. But some might unknowingly put the cooked food back on the same surface where the raw food had been--recontaminating it. "Simple things like that," Gore said. "There are just some simple practices to keep food safe."
There are only about 100,000 cases of food-borne diseases reported annually, but officials believe that the number of those afflicted is much higher, perhaps as many as 33 million. The discrepancy stems from the fact that many symptoms of food poisoning--such as stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea--are often misdiagnosed as other ailments or are not serious enough to require treatment.
An estimated 9,000 people die from food poisoning every year.
The backbone of the enhanced program is a system already in use for seafood, meat and poultry, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, which identifies vulnerable points during manufacturing and processing where contamination can occur and tries to correct them before problems develop. A cooperative system between business and government, the system depends on state-of-the-art science to bolster the visual and sniff tests of the past.
Under the new juice rules, companies must prove that they have prevented contamination at every step of production.
Cimons reported from Washington and Groves from Los Angeles.