Even as government health experts urge Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, federal rules for protecting consumers from such hazards as the current E. coli outbreak from contaminated spinach are weaker than for meat and poultry.
And as food-borne illnesses attributed to produce appear to be rising, budget squeezes have federal regulators retreating rather than attacking. Compliance with safety guidelines on the handling of produce is voluntary and federal inspectors conduct fewer and fewer checkups, according to government documents and interviews with consumer groups and a top former Food and Drug Administration official.
For example, since the FDA hired inspectors in the wake of bioterrorism concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has been steadily thinning their ranks. The number of FDA staff in field offices around the country shrank from 2,217 in 2003 to 1,962 currently, budget documents indicate.
In the 1970s, the agency conducted about 35,000 food inspections a year, said William Hubbard, former FDA associate commissioner for policy, planning and legislation. More recently, that has fallen to about 5,000 annual inspections, with state officials carrying out about another 4,000.
“There are more than 100,000 food processors in the country. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do the math,” said Hubbard, whose tenure at the agency spanned nearly 30 years.
The FDA tries to set priorities for inspections, so that risky operations are checked more often. Even so, a processed food facility may not see an FDA inspector for years at a time.
“The bottom line is that the food safety effort at the agency grows smaller and weaker year by year, despite continuing food safety problems,” Hubbard said.
FDA officials, asked to comment on the problems, said they were too focused on the California spinach problem to discuss broader issues. But they acknowledge something is wrong.
“Clearly we’re not where we need to be,” said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the agency’s food division. “If we were, this outbreak wouldn’t have happened.”
“If there is a need to change the regulations, tighten the regulations, invoke new regulations ... then certainly FDA would be open to that and looking to do that to protect public health,” Acheson said.
Such regulations are often not embraced by produce farmers. In Salinas on Thursday, in the spinach industry’s first formal response to the E. coli outbreak that has sickened 156 and killed one, industry leaders said they were working to meet an FDA request for stronger voluntary guidelines to prevent illnesses.
The presidents of two major trade groups announced the effort after meeting Thursday morning in Salinas with FDA officials and 200 growers, processors, shippers and others.
Thomas Nassif, president of the 3,000-member Irvine-based Western Growers, vowed to swiftly come up with a plan focusing on ‘the three Ws’ -- potential contamination from water, the workforce and wildlife.
Nassif said that it was a cooperative effort and that the FDA was not trying to impose tough new regulations on farmers. He said that the FDA had requested the food safety guidelines. Industry groups hope to present their proposal to the federal agency within a week to hasten the lifting of the fresh-spinach warning.
“The FDA is not trying to muscle the industry,” he said.
Some industry officials say their standards are as good as any federal regulation would be.
“The industry isn’t sitting around waiting for federal regulators to show up and regulate them. They are being regulated already by their own customers,” said David Gombas, vice president for scientific and technical affairs with the United Fresh Produce Assn. “It’s not unusual to have a customer auditor show up once a month ... to make sure they are following safe practices.”
But Gombas also said that industry would not necessarily oppose mandatory regulations.
“Whatever it’s going to take to make the produce supply safe, we are in support of,” he said. “If ultimately it turns out that additional regulations are necessary, we would support that. However, the question becomes one of what those regulations would be.”
The government takes different approaches to different categories of foods.
Meat, fish and poultry are subject to mandatory government standards designed to prevent contamination at each step of the process that carries those foods to consumers.
But the government issues only voluntary guidelines for produce. Even the current spinach recall is voluntary.
And although the safety guidelines are broadly supported by the agricultural industry, there is no system to ensure that they are always followed by every grower, processor and shipper.
Also, the FDA faces increasing financial pressure.
An FDA analysis last month found that modest increases in the agency’s budget had failed to keep pace with inflation in personnel costs, and that the burden had fallen disproportionately on the food division -- the equivalent of a 28% cut in its budget from 2004 to 2007.
“As long as the resources available to FDA do not keep up with the realities of increasing costs ... it is increasingly difficult for FDA to perform in a way that meets public expectations,” the Aug. 10 analysis concluded.
The E. coli O157:H7 infections from tainted spinach started turning up in August. The outbreak has spread to 23 states.
As government resources have dwindled and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased, some data suggest a rise in problems with contaminated produce. In 1998, there were 44 such outbreaks; and in 2004 there were 86, according to data compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates tougher regulations.
“What we are dealing with in this outbreak is consumers awakening to the idea that produce is a raw food that can carry harmful bacteria, just like meat or poultry,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the center. “The trend in produce is quite significant to us. It definitely indicates a growing problem.”
The fragmentation of the government’s food safety system makes it harder to identify emerging problems, some critics say. The Agriculture Department has jurisdiction over meat and poultry. The FDA, which is part of the Health and Human Services Department, is responsible for produce and seafood.
Meat-processing plants have on-site federal inspectors, a practice rooted in an earlier era when refrigeration was rudimentary. The tradition of looser regulation of the fruit and vegetable industry dates to a time when fresh produce was locally grown, not a commodity shipped cross-country or around the world.
The FDA guidelines -- known as “good agricultural practices” -- include irrigating with clean water, providing toilet facilities for pickers, making sure animals don’t contaminate produce in packing sheds, properly washing fresh produce, and maintaining correct temperatures during shipping.
Since 2004, the FDA has been urging closer adherence to these practices among California growers of leafy greens, including spinach. Officials are clearly frustrated that the current outbreak occurred despite their admonitions.
In Congress, some lawmakers say the FDA had repeatedly insisted it didn’t need to impose new food safety requirements.
“They always come back and tell us they don’t need mandatory regulations,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees FDA funding.
“We need to examine whether federal agencies have the authority to go on the farms to regulate food safety.”
Voluntary guidelines have proven ineffective, said DeWaal, the consumer activist. Cleanliness standards and other safeguards “should be mandated, and government should have the authority to enforce them,” she said.
But as things stand, the FDA lacks the resources to formulate and enforce new regulations, according to Hubbard, the former agency administrator.
“When people started to eat more fresh stuff and organics, the FDA didn’t have the capacity to do the regulations, educate the industry, and enforce the regulations,” he said.
“It didn’t have the money to do the research on things like test methods. For many of these contaminants, there is no simple test. Adequate funding over the years would have kept the agency ahead.”
Times staff writer Deborah Schoch in Salinas contributed to this report.