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Senator Seeks New Oversight of Greens

October 12, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A state senator Wednesday declared that the leafy green industry requires more stringent state regulation and criticized the California Department of Health Services for overseeing a "very, very poor and lax system" to prevent E. coli outbreaks caused by produce.

"With 45 inspectors, 5,500 processing plants and 100,000 farms, that seems to be putting us well behind where we should be," said Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) at a legislative oversight meeting. "I don't think government is doing its job in this case."

Florez noted how the state largely lacks the authority to impose penalties or initiate recalls, and how the industry is primarily responsible for the voluntary "good agricultural practices" outlining the food safety protocols that companies are asked to follow.

"I think the time for industry-sponsored approaches are over," said Florez, chairman of the Senate's Committee on Governmental Organization. "I think consumers are looking for stronger measures than the voluntary measures that have produced 20 of these outbreaks. And we don't want to see the 21st."

Of the 20 lettuce or spinach outbreaks linked to a virulent and potentially deadly strain of E. coli since 1995, nine have been traced to the Salinas Valley area, one of the nation's largest producers of the leafy greens.

Florez said he plans to introduce legislation in January that would give health officials the power to enforce regulations over the industry, including the power to penalize growers, as well as increase the numbers of inspectors in the field.

He also criticized health officials for not completing an investigation of an E. coli outbreak linked to Salinas Valley lettuce in 2005 that sickened at least 34 people in Minnesota.

State health officials defended their efforts, noting that they have been working for years on preventing outbreaks. They also pointed out that they were able to narrow the source of the most recent contaminated spinach much faster than in previous outbreaks.

"To date, the voluntary process has been very effective," said Kevin Reilly, deputy director for prevention services at the Department of Health Services. He noted that Natural Selection Foods, the processor identified in the outbreak, recalled its products the same day his office suggested it.

Health authorities also denied that they were lax in preventing another outbreak. Just weeks before the spinach outbreak, they said, state and federal Food and Drug Administration officials began sending inspectors to farms and processors to evaluate food safety practices.

The department acknowledged, however, not completing assessments about additional regulatory action it began considering in January.

At the time, Dr. Mark Horton, the state's public health officer, said he ordered his staff to consider reassessing manure composting rules, as well as regulations on septic tank systems that may leak into canals bordering fields.

In addition, staffers were mulling whether growers should be advised not to grow ready-to-eat crops in fields prone to flooding and assessing the enforcement of rules regarding workers' access to portable toilets and hand-washing facilities.

The hearing was attended by only two senators of the nine-member committee -- Florez and Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata). The FDA did not send a representative to the hearing.

The committee's vice chairman, Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Salinas), declared the hearing a "witch-hunt" and premature.

"For any legislator to start proposing legislation without having an investigation concluded, I just think it's premature and it's unproductive," Denham said.

Some industry representatives said their growers and processors have mixed feelings about whether greater government regulation is necessary. Dave Puglia, the Western Growers Assn.'s vice president of state government affairs, said consumers could be lulled into a false sense of security if new government regulations were put in place without understanding how the contamination occurred.

In the meantime, Puglia said his organization is recommending its members take several actions before resuming spinach harvests, including immediately testing all irrigation water for the virulent strain of E. coli, O157:H7, that has sickened nearly 200 people and killed three in the spinach outbreak.

He also suggested that fertilizer containing manure be tested for the strain; all harvesting, processing, packing and shipping equipment be dismantled and sanitized; and farms and processors or producers be subject to an independent safety certification before resuming spinach harvests.

State and federal officials are continuing their investigation into what may have caused the contamination, including testing irrigation water samples as well as fecal samples from wild animals near the nine farms suspected in the outbreak.

Last week, FBI agents searched two produce companies to determine if they took necessary steps to ensure the spinach was safe before it was shipped.

Of about 500 specimens taken, authorities have identified E. coli O157:H7 in cattle droppings near one of the suspect fields; testing is underway to determine if that strain is a genetic match to the one that contaminated the spinach, said Reilly, of the Department of Health Services.

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