New rule needed to keep produce safe

March 5, 2013 

It’s unfair that people who try to eat the right thing – fresh fruits and vegetables – are sometimes hit with illnesses caused by produce tainted with E.coli and other pathogens.

The Food and Drug Administration reports that contaminated produce was responsible for 131 outbreaks between 1996 and 2010, causing more than 14,000 illnesses and 34 deaths. The problem is compounded by the damage such outbreaks do to sales. Consumers are still wary of fresh spinach nearly seven years after three people died and more than 100 were hospitalized after consuming the leafy vegetable from a single California producer.

Now the FDA wants changes in the rules for growing and handling produce that would reduce risks of contamination in both domestic and imported fresh fruits and vegetables. The changes proposed as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act will be as good for produce farmers as fresh produce is good for the body.

The FDA safety rule would raise the standards for water used in irrigation, do more to separate produce from exposure to manure from livestock and fertilizers, and set hygiene standards for workers who harvest and package produce.

Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said the current risk of contaminated produce is quite low, “but when things go wrong, it can be disruptive.” He said the thrust of the new rules is to “regulate with education rather than a hammer.”

N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler is playing a key role in working with farmers on refining the proposals. Troxler, who is also president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said it’s impossible to make produce 100 percent free of harmful microbes. But he said farmers welcome regulations that will increase consumer confidence and reduce outbreaks that can sharply cut demand for a crop.

The FDA estimates the rule would prevent 1.75 million food-borne illnesses, with an associated benefit of $1.04 billion, annually. The new safety procedures will cover 40,500 large American farms and 15,000 foreign farms, but many small farms would be partially or completely exempted.

“The Food Safety Modernization Act and these rules represent a significant step forward in protecting the American public by focusing on prevention,” Troxler said.

This cooperation between growers and regulators can only be good news for the American diet. Now let us all eat our spinach.

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