WASHINGTON — Even as government health experts urge Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, federal rules for protecting consumers from such hazards as the current E. coli outbreak from contaminated spinach are weaker than for meat and poultry.
And as food-borne illnesses attributed to produce appear to be rising, budget squeezes have federal regulators retreating rather than attacking. Compliance with safety guidelines on the handling of produce is voluntary and federal inspectors conduct fewer and fewer checkups, according to government documents and interviews with consumer groups and a top former Food and Drug Administration official.
For example, since the FDA hired inspectors in the wake of bioterrorism concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has been steadily thinning their ranks. The number of FDA staff in field offices around the country shrank from 2,217 in 2003 to 1,962 currently, budget documents indicate.
In the 1970s, the agency conducted about 35,000 food inspections a year, said William Hubbard, former FDA associate commissioner for policy, planning and legislation. More recently, that has fallen to about 5,000 annual inspections, with state officials carrying out about another 4,000.
"There are more than 100,000 food processors in the country. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math," said Hubbard, whose tenure at the agency spanned nearly 30 years.
The FDA tries to set priorities for inspections, so that risky operations are checked more often. Even so, a processed food facility may not see an FDA inspector for years at a time.
"The bottom line is that the food safety effort at the agency grows smaller and weaker year by year, despite continuing food safety problems," Hubbard said.
FDA officials, asked to comment on the problems, said they were too focused on the California spinach problem to discuss broader issues. But they acknowledge something is wrong.
"Clearly we're not where we need to be," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the agency's food division. "If we were, this outbreak wouldn't have happened."
"If there is a need to change the regulations, tighten the regulations, invoke new regulations ... then certainly FDA would be open to that and looking to do that to protect public health," Acheson said.
Such regulations are often not embraced by produce farmers. In Salinas on Thursday, in the spinach industry's first formal response to the E. coli outbreak that has sickened 156 and killed one, industry leaders said they were working to meet an FDA request for stronger voluntary guidelines to prevent illnesses.
The presidents of two major trade groups announced the effort after meeting Thursday morning in Salinas with FDA officials and 200 growers, processors, shippers and others.
Thomas Nassif, president of the 3,000-member Irvine-based Western Growers, vowed to swiftly come up with a plan focusing on 'the three Ws' -- potential contamination from water, the workforce and wildlife.
Nassif said that it was a cooperative effort and that the FDA was not trying to impose tough new regulations on farmers. He said that the FDA had requested the food safety guidelines. Industry groups hope to present their proposal to the federal agency within a week to hasten the lifting of the fresh-spinach warning.
"The FDA is not trying to muscle the industry," he said.
Some industry officials say their standards are as good as any federal regulation would be.
"The industry isn't sitting around waiting for federal regulators to show up and regulate them. They are being regulated already by their own customers," said David Gombas, vice president for scientific and technical affairs with the United Fresh Produce Assn. "It's not unusual to have a customer auditor show up once a month ... to make sure they are following safe practices."
But Gombas also said that industry would not necessarily oppose mandatory regulations.
"Whatever it's going to take to make the produce supply safe, we are in support of," he said. "If ultimately it turns out that additional regulations are necessary, we would support that. However, the question becomes one of what those regulations would be."
The government takes different approaches to different categories of foods.
Meat, fish and poultry are subject to mandatory government standards designed to prevent contamination at each step of the process that carries those foods to consumers.
But the government issues only voluntary guidelines for produce. Even the current spinach recall is voluntary.
And although the safety guidelines are broadly supported by the agricultural industry, there is no system to ensure that they are always followed by every grower, processor and shipper.
Also, the FDA faces increasing financial pressure.