Europe's E. Coli Outbreak: Does New Food Safety Law Prevent That in US?

By Wall, Patrick | The Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Europe's E. Coli Outbreak: Does New Food Safety Law Prevent That in US?


Wall, Patrick, The Christian Science Monitor


A new US food safety regimen became law in January. It expands government regulation of growers, but it's not clear Congress will allot enough funds to implement and enforce the law.

Scientists on Friday blamed contaminated vegetable sprouts for the E. coli outbreak that began in northern Germany and that public health officials say has killed 31 people and sickened nearly 3,100 others throughout Europe.

The deadly outbreak prompts this question in America: How safe is our own farm food?

Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act late last year after a series of similar, though less severe, outbreaks of food- borne illness in the US. The law, which President Obama signed in January, allows for greatly expanded regulation of domestic and imported fruits and vegetables.

While the law's scope is unprecedented, some gaps remain, as do questions about funding and enforcement.

"It's an important and historic advance in how food will be protected in the United States," says Erik Olson, director of food programs for the Pew Health Group in Washington, D.C.

But, Mr. Olson adds, if the new law is not fully financed and implemented, "We are worried that the kinds of things that are happening in Europe right now could come to our shores at any time."

The Food Safety Modernization Act gives broad new regulatory powers to the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency responsible for the safety of the processed food, dairy products, and produce that Americans eat. The law, which passed with bipartisan support, authorizes the FDA to inspect food imports, order recalls of tainted food, and regulate safety practices on produce farms.

"The most important thing that it does is give us a focus on prevention," says FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. "Instead of being in a position where we have to respond to outbreaks, it puts a responsibility on producers to put into place preventive controls to make sure their food is safe."

When it comes to produce safety, the goal is to keep pathogens away from crops.

Bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella - the most frequently reported sources of food-borne illness - live in animal intestines and travel in feces. To prevent crop contamination, experts say, farmers should focus on the four W's: water, waste, wildlife, and workers.

Still, when fruits and vegetables are eaten raw, there can be no guarantee that the produce is pathogen-free.

"There's no zero-risk in fresh fruits or vegetables," says Betsy Bihn, coordinator of a farm safety training program operated out of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and funded in part by the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture. "The best we can do is reduce risk and do the things that make the most sense."

Reducing risk is the foundation of the new food safety law, which for the first time empowers the FDA to regulate the safety practices of produce farmers. Though the FDA won't propose its new regulations until next year, the law requires the rules to focus on soil treatment, worker hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animals in the growing area, and water.

Though the Germany-based E. coli outbreak is the latest reminder of the high cost of food contamination, a series of outbreaks in the US led to the Food Safety Modernization Act.

In recent years, salmonella outbreaks in the US were linked to cantaloupe, alfalfa sprouts, and jalapeno peppers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

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