Food safety on back burner
By Michael Doyle
BOB KING / AP
A worker tends to tomato plants last week at a hydroponic greenhouse in Minnesota.
WASHINGTON —A nationwide salmonella outbreak attributed to tomatoes comes just as Congress and President Bush are finishing a tug of war over their farm bill, which omits some of the highest-profile food-safety proposals that lawmakers once offered.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 300,000 Americans are hospitalized each year, and 5,000 die, because of food-borne illnesses.
"The agriculture committees' orientation is not food safety," Waldrop said. "You can make small, incremental steps, but you are never going to make big structural food-safety changes through a farm bill."
"Food safety is never a key issue for any farm bill," Chris Waldrop, the food-policy director for the Consumer Federation of America, said Tuesday.
...the House and Senate agriculture-committee members who write the farm bill tend to be protective of agribusiness. They aren't out to make enemies by imposing strict new rules.
Western fruit and vegetable growers, for instance, hoped that the farm bill would authorize self-regulation through industry-run marketing orders. Handlers of California leafy greens imposed such a plan after a 2006 outbreak of sickness traced to Salinas-area spinach tainted by E. coli bacteria. Environmentalists successfully opposed the idea of giving industry more power to regulate itself.
"It is clear from the California leafy-green experience that it is bad for natural resources and environmental protection," said Ferd Hoefner, the policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
Fresh produce increasingly comes from faraway states and even faraway countries, which is why contaminations increasingly crop up across the country, said Dr. Patricia Griffin, the chief of the disease centers' enteric disease epidemiology branch.
And federal authorities have yet to create a stronger set of rules and enforcement procedures for imports and U.S. produce.
Food-safety advocates criticized what they said was the government's inaction in preventing outbreaks of food poisoning.
"How many times does this have to happen before FDA gets serious about food safety?" asked Sarah Klein, a staff lawyer at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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