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SALINAS, Calif. - Government regulators failed to act on calls for stepped-up inspections of leafy greens after last year's deadly E. coli spinach outbreak, "leaving the safety of America's salads to a patchwork of largely unenforceable rules and the industry itself," said the Associated Press in a report published Wednesday based on the news service's own investigation.
The AP said regulations governing farms in the growing region of central California remained much as they were when bacteria originating at a cattle ranch infected spinach that killed three people and sickened more than 200.
AP said a review of data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed that federal officials inspect companies that grow and process salad greens an average of just once every 3.9 years, which stands in stark contrast to some congressional proposals that would require such inspections to be conducted at least four times a year.
Since last year's highly publicized E. coli outbreak, the AP said "California public health inspectors have yet to spot-test for bacteriological contamination at processing plants handling leafy greens. And some farms in the fertile Salinas Valley are still vulnerable to bacteria-carrying wildlife and other dangerous conditions."
Describing the FDA's issuance of a two-week national warning advising consumers to avoid eating fresh spinach in mid-September, the AP said "a regulatory backlash never happened"... after "momentum faded as the E. coli case dropped from the headlines and the industry lobbied hard for self-regulation."
Amy Philpott, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, told Progressive Grocer that the FDA is working more closely with industry than ever before.
"While FDA has not issued new regulations, we do believe they are working more closely on produce issues than ever before, through both the Lettuce initiative and the Tomato initiative."
Philpott also said "the final guidance on fresh-cut processing is indeed a new step, and provides specific GMP guidelines for processors to follow. The industry is continuing to work with FDA to pursue additional efforts, such as publishing commodity specific GAPs for leafy greens."