Monday, December 11, 2006

E. coli and food safety regulation for produce

In protecting produce supplies from the dangerous form of E. coli that has caused recent outbreaks, one problem is that produce consumption doesn't offer a final "kill step" in the same fashion as cooking meat.

In response, growers could seek stricter FDA regulation of production processes, but that would take many months at the very least. Alternatively, growers could establish a marketing order enforced by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. These marketing orders aren't customarily used for food safety purposes, and they leave a higher level of responsibility on the industry's shoulders, but they would be quicker to implement.

Several sources have identified the increasing industrialization of the produce industry as a contributor to recent outbreaks. Annys Shin writes today in the Washington Post:
The patchwork of federal and state regulations that is supposed to ensure food safety has become less effective as the nation's produce supply has grown increasingly industrial. Three months after the spinach scare, there is no agreement on what should be done to reduce health risks from the nation's fruits and vegetables even as each episode of illness has heightened a sense of urgency.
According to Eric Schlosser's op-ed today in the New York Times:
Over the past 40 years, the industrialization and centralization of our food system has greatly magnified the potential for big outbreaks. Today only 13 slaughterhouses process the majority of the beef consumed by 300 million Americans.

And the fast-food industry’s demand for uniform products has encouraged centralization in every agricultural sector. Fruits and vegetables are now being grown, packaged and shipped like industrial commodities. As a result, a little contamination can go a long way. The Taco Bell distribution center in New Jersey now being investigated as a possible source of E. coli supplies more than 1,100 restaurants in the Northeast.

While threats to the food supply have been growing, food-safety regulations have been weakened. Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican candidates for national office. In return, these industries have effectively been given control of the agencies created to regulate them.