Growers, Distributors Want Industry-Driven Regulation Despite E. Coli Outbreaks

U.S. safety regulations for produce have been relegated to the far reaches of government bureaucracies, tucked into an under-funded combination of U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight and state agriculture bureaucracies. Despite significant increases in 2006 of reported produce-related illnesses compared to previous years (ranging from a deadly spinach E.coli outbreak to Taco Bell's unsolved, but eventually controlled, East Coast E.coli outbreak in December), growers are lobbying for an industry-funded system of regulation. The approach is known as "marketing orders" in which farmers would pay for Department of Agriculture oversight through its "Agricultural Marketing Service," which does not traditionally work in food safety. At the FDA--where budget cuts have reduced inspections--an official has endorsed the new approach. But there is widespread disagreement on the most effective path to produce safety. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA and the State of California to set mandatory safety standards for fruit and vegetables. Researchers suspect that the deadly E. coli strain resulted from industrial livestock production methods, including force-feeding grain and antibiotics to cattle.