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John Bisnar
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State committee backs E. coli bills

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Bills designed to prevent E. coli contamination of spinach and other leafy green vegetables narrowly cleared a key legislative committee over the objection of farm groups, according to a Business Week article.

The Senate Agriculture Committee approved three bills this week that would impose tougher standards on growers who cltivate spinach, lettuce, sprouts and other leafy vegetables. The state would have more power to respond to outbreaks of food-borne disease and would establish a process to more quickly trace outbreaks to their source, the article said.

The California Farm Bureau Federation and Western Growers Association said the bills are unnecessary because the industry is adopting new voluntary safety standards on its own this year. The organizations said those steps will improve safety more quickly than the bills authored by Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter. The groups also said their internal measures also will give the industry more ability to adapt safety practices to changing farm conditions and technology.

But there can be no safety guarantees until consumers accept some sort of “kill step” such as irradiation, said Western Growers Association Vice President Dave Puglia. That’s necessary to sterilize a product that is grown outdoors and eaten raw, he said.

“It’s not a risk-free world,” Puglia said. “It’s not a risk-free product.”

But consumer advocates say that the repeated food outbreaks have shown that growers and food processors are incapable of policing themselves. They say the consequences of such self-policing has proved to be disastrous in the past and will continue to be so.

Florez’s bills are in response to last September’s E. coli outbreak in spinach and lettuce that was grown primarily in the Salinas Valley. The outbreak was blamed for contamination that killed at least three people and sickened about 300 nationwide. Lettuce, spinach and sprouts can be contaminated with the E. coli bacteria if they come in contact with manure.

I agree that tough legislation is the key to food safety. Again, legislation alone is not enough. Enforcement also holds the key. What good are safety regulations if agencies don’t have the manpower to inspect facilities frequently and enforce those rules? Until those aspects work in unison, we can expect more of these outbreaks.