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WASHINGTON - Legislation introduced today by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) would establish a national food safety framework for all fresh produce.
The introduction of the Fresh Produce Safety Act comes one year after a large-scale outbreak of food-borne illness caused by a virulent strain of E. coli in fresh bagged spinach sickened more than 200 people and killed three.
"It seems these fresh-produce recalls have become the rule rather than the exception in the United States - and that is unacceptable," said Harkin, noting that the current produce oversight system is a patchwork of state and federal regulations. "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. The American people need to have confidence that their fruits and vegetables are produced and handled in a safe and wholesome manner."
The Fresh Produce Safety Act of 2007 will give FDA the authority to make its current voluntary guidelines mandatory. The bill further requires FDA to establish national standards tailored to specific commodities and the risk factors in the environments where each is grown. It also requires stepped-up inspections of operations that grow and process fresh produce, such as spinach or lettuce.
Other key provisions of the bill include a surveillance system to identify the sources of fresh produce contamination, and a research program to better identify, mitigate, and prevent contamination of produce. The bill would also require rulemaking to ensure that imported produce has been grown and processed with the same standards that we will have in the U.S.
Sen. Herb Kohl co-sponsored the bill, which has the support of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"Americans should be consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables; instead we are scanning our refrigerators looking for bags to discard," said CSPI's food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "These continuing outbreaks and recalls are eroding Americans' confidence in fresh produce. It's time for a food safety system that applies the same scrutiny to our farms as we have for other high-risk products like meat and poultry."
Tom Stenzel, president and c.e.o. of the United Fresh Produce Association, said on first review, some elements of Senator Harkin's bill could be useful, while others that may be well-intentioned will not be productive in enhancing public health and safety.
"We support greater FDA oversight in ensuring that strong Good Agricultural Practices are developed and applied to various commodities based on potential risk," said Stenzel. "In addition, we support the call for greater public education and research in the area of produce food safety, and a commitment that domestic and imported produce must meet the same safety standards regardless of point of origin."
At the same time, Stenzel continued, "some of the suggestions in the legislation are overly prescriptive," including a call for on-farm management systems that Stenzel said "would offer limited value in assuring food safety. We believe those are the types of issues and recommendations that are best determined in cooperation with scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA, rather than in legislation."
Stenzel said his organization will work with Sen. Harkin and other congressional leaders, "to ensure that we are indeed taking all steps needed to grow and market the safest possible produce, and give consumers the confidence they need to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables to meet the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, reduce the incidence of obesity, and improve their long-term health."