U.S. regulators found "objectionable conditions" in almost half of their inspections of packaged fresh spinach producers but took no "meaningful enforcement action," a congressional report released Wednesday said.
The Food and Drug Administration listed poor sanitation and other deficiencies in 47% of 199 inspections from January 2001 to February 2007, according to a report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. None of the cases was referred to the FDA's enforcement arm for further action.
E. coli bacteria in bagged spinach from California killed three people and sickened at least 205 in 2006. The spinach may have been tainted when feral pigs roamed through cattle feces at a nearby ranch and crossed into the spinach fields, investigators from the FDA and California said last year.
"The inspection reports provided to the committee raise serious questions about the ability of [the] FDA to protect the safety of fresh spinach and other fresh produce," the committee's report said.
Inadequate funding may be a reason that the FDA failed to act against spinach producers, according to the committee, whose chairman is Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). A report last year by a panel of outside advisors to the FDA found that the agency conducted an "appallingly low" rate of food inspections and that its enforcement wasn't keeping pace.
FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said she wasn't able to explain why the FDA didn't act after identifying deficiencies in spinach plants. The agency has developed a food safety plan and is targeting products that pose the greatest risk, she said.
The FDA found "repeated problems" at multiple facilities operated by Natural Selection Foods, which the FDA linked to the 2006 outbreak, according to the report.
The FDA never required Natural Selection to correct the conditions "even after laboratory tests indicated the presence of microbial contamination at the exact site later implicated in the 2006 outbreak," according to the report.
Samantha Cabaluna, a spokeswoman for San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Natural Selection, said she was reviewing the report and couldn't immediately comment.
In 38 cases, the FDA found repeated violations at facilities that produced fresh packaged spinach and didn't force corrective actions, the report said. The FDA instead requested voluntary compliance.
During the period reviewed by the committee, the FDA provided 199 inspection reports for 67 packaged fresh spinach facilities, about one inspection of each facility every 2.4 years, the report said.