WASHINGTON — A year after the nationwide E. coli spinach outbreak that sickened more than 200 people and killed three, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, has introduced legislation to establish a national food safety framework for all fresh produce.
“We need to restore the public's confidence in American fresh produce and the agency that regulates it,” said Harkin in his announcement of the bill.
“My aim is to create, for the first time, an effective national food safety framework for all fresh produce.”
Under the Fresh Produce Safety Act, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would have the authority to require produce companies to follow its food safety guidelines, which are currently voluntary. Harkin's bill would require the FDA to establish national standards tailored to specific types of produce and the particular risk factors arising from the way each is grown and handled. The legislation also requires stepped-up inspections of operations that grow and process fresh produce, such as spinach and lettuce.
Other key provisions of the bill include a surveillance system to identify sources of fresh produce contamination, and a research program to better understand and prevent contamination of produce. Harkin's legislation would also require the FDA to write rules to ensure that imported produce has been grown and processed under the same standards that the industry will have in the U.S.
“There are many food safety improvements in the Harkin Bill that we've called for — in particular, the mandatory Good Agricultural Practices,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs, Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.
“The state efforts that we've seen so far in California with leafy greens and Florida with tomatoes — and there are others — are great first steps, but we think national standards will be more important. Suppliers are supplying into multiple states, retailers have stores in multiple states, so we don't want to see a patchwork of state regulation. National regulations, I think, are a smart way to go.”
PMA has called for federal regulatory mandatory standards, so Harkin's bill is in line with what PMA needs to happen, Means said. Means added that she believes the FDA already has the authority to make its current voluntary guidelines mandatory, but if Congress doesn't think so, then that authority should be officially granted. One problem, however, is that the FDA's budget is already stretched thin, and additional funding would be necessary.
“What I think is most important with that is that the FDA needs the funding,” Means said. “We can't expect them to do more without the funding and the resources they need.”
Means also noted that she was pleased with the bill's emphasis on public education, as well as new research on how to ensure produce safety throughout the distribution process. Several of the research items included in Harkin's bill match what the produce industry has been calling for, including new research into processing sanitation, rapid testing and studying sources of contamination.
“Also, it talks about getting some consumption data for produce, and that's always welcome,” Means said. “That will be valuable not just in terms of food safety, but also in our nutrition and health efforts.”
These nutrition and health efforts also make the Fresh Produce Safety Act timely, Harkin said in his announcement.
“In recent years, major efforts and investments have encouraged people to eat these healthful foods,” Harkin said. “It can only turn people away from healthy eating to have continuous instances of E. coli contamination and fresh produce recalls. The American people need to have confidence that their fruits and vegetables are produced and handled in a safe and wholesome manner. That is exactly the goal of the Fresh Produce Safety Act.”