A New Food System

Article excerpt

Winter is upon us and I can no longer enjoy visits to the farmers' market to buy locally grown produce. I miss the berries and the zucchini blossoms, but more than anything I miss the spinach. I now face the daunting prospect of buying greens trucked in from somewhere, most likely California.

California's Central Valley is the salad bowl of the nation, supplying the bulk of leafy greens sold at supermarkets. We are all so dependent upon the Golden State for our food supply.

So it was with dismay that I read about yet another recall of spinach grown in California this past September. A little more than a year ago, three people died from eating spinach contaminated with E. coli. More than 205 people in twenty-six states also became ill; of these, 15 percent suffered kidney failure.

This September, two companies recalled tainted leafy greens. Metz Fresh, a grower and shipper based in the Central Valley, recalled 8,000 cartons of fresh spinach sullied with salmonella. Dole Foods recalled packages of its "Hearts Delight" romaine lettuce brand sold in nine U.S. states and in Canada after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency found E. coli in a sample. (There have been no reports of anyone becoming sick from these products.)

There were calls for stepped-up inspections of leafy greens in light of last year's E. coil outbreak. But government regulators failed to increase inspections or to create new laws. Instead, a patchwork of largely unenforceable rules and the producers themselves regulate the $1.5 billion industry.

Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, has introduced legislation to establish national standards for all fresh produce and to step up inspections. "It is increasingly clear that the Food and Drug Administration lacks the resources and the authority to ensure the safety of the U.S. food supply," says Harkin.

Raw vegetables have actually surpassed meat as the primary culprit for food-borne illness. "Produce caused nearly twice as many multistate outbreaks than meat from 1990-2004, but the funding has not caught up to this trend," reports AP. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture branch that prevents animal diseases gets almost twice the funding as the FDA receives to safeguard produce."

California State Senator Dean Florez sponsored a bill earlier this year that would have created mandatory state regulations and stiff penalties for the industry. Farm district representatives blocked that proposal.

The industry lobbied hard to police itself with voluntary food safety guidelines. The non-obligatory, "best practices" program, which the vast majority of leafy green producers joined, officially began in California on July 23. Best practices include frequently testing water and soil and creating buffers between growing areas and cattle ranches. But if salad growers or handlers violate these new guidelines, they are not subject to any fines, they are not punishable under state law, and they may be allowed to keep selling their products, reports AP.

It may be too soon to tell if this voluntary program is working but this much we do know: Dole's own testing, which has increased since the 2006 recall, did not detect the E. coli contamination. Canadian health inspectors found it in a random test. Metz Fresh shipped spinach before the company's testing confirmed the presence of salmonella.

We need national standards and better oversight. Harkin's bill could be a step in the right direction. But we also need to rethink our whole food system. Why can't we come up with a better one that takes into account environmental, health, and labor concerns?

Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, introduced the Safe Food Act of 2007, which would put all food safety responsibilities under a single new food safety administrator. Currently, the government's oversight duties are split between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). …