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FDA issues guidelines for packaged produce

March 13, 2007|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

In an effort to prevent more illnesses from bacteria-tainted produce, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday announced voluntary guidelines for processors of packaged fruits and vegetables, the produce industry's fastest-growing sector.

The list of steps to minimize the spread of bacteria includes recommendations for multiple washings of produce, cold storage, regular water testing and monitoring employees for signs of infectious disease. Many processing and packaging companies already follow the federal guidelines, which were first proposed a year ago.

The national guidelines will apply to bagged spinach, shredded lettuce, salad mixes, baby carrots, cut melons, broccoli florets and other fresh-cut produce.

But critics in Congress and from consumer groups say voluntary programs are inadequate because numerous lethal outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have been traced to produce.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who co-chairs the congressional Food Safety Caucus, said the FDA was missing its chance to take action when the public wants protection and the food industry seeks help to restore its image. The new FDA document "does nothing and merely tells growers what they already know," said DeLauro, who also chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture.

Nega Beru, director of the FDA's food safety office, said adopting voluntary guidelines addressed the issue faster than mandatory rules would. FDA officials said they would consider what else should be done after hearing comments at public meetings over the next month.

Tom Stenzel, president of United Fresh Produce Assn., an industry group, pledged Monday at a U.S. Senate hearing in Wisconsin to ensure the guidelines were followed in every packaged produce processing operation.

In recent years, there has been an increase in illnesses traced to such produce.

"More and more, we're seeing fresh-cut produce implicated in outbreaks," Beru said, adding that it has been linked to 25% of all illnesses from produce.

The increase is in part because of the growing number of packaged products available to consumers, and the risk of cross-contamination is heightened because they are handled so much, Beru said.

"The overall number of produce-related outbreaks between 1998 and 2004 are essentially flat, but we're definitely seeing a trend toward fresh-cut products being more frequently implicated," said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's chief medical officer for food safety.

Two of the most serious disease outbreaks have been linked to California-grown packaged produce. Four people died and about 300 became ill last fall after eating bagged spinach grown in the Salinas Valley and lettuce served at Taco Bell and Taco John restaurants.

Federal investigators still are unsure how vegetables and fruits implicated in most outbreaks get contaminated.

A state and federal report on the spinach outbreak is expected in a few weeks. State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), who has proposed mandatory safety rules for California's leafy greens, on Monday asked state health department officials to reveal the identity of the grower involved and the results of the investigation, but they refused, saying the report was not ready.

California's Department of Food and Agriculture and the produce industry plan to begin implementing a voluntary program for leafy greens April 1. Companies that sign the agreement would accept products only from farmers who followed food safety procedures prescribed by the industry. Florez compares that to a fox guarding a henhouse, and he instead wants to create a state commission to impose mandatory standards.

Acheson declined to comment on California's debate, saying that if states felt the need to adopt rules more stringent than the FDA's, "it's entirely up to them."


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