Fresh evidence our food is in jeopardy
A Times Editorial
Published October 17, 2006
Health officials investigating a California spinach crop tainted with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria have announced that they identified the likely source of the pathogen: a nearby cattle ranch. The spinach farmer in question leases land from the rancher, with only a road separating the crop from a cow pasture.
Let's get this straight. Government food safety regulators know E. coli bacteria live in the intestines of cattle. If those bacteria come in contact with spinach, they could endanger the health of anyone eating the product. Yet the regulators have done nothing to stop farmers from growing leafy crops near cattle operations.
This preventable incident that left 200 people sick and three dead is merely the latest example of how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture (along with their state counterparts) fail to protect the American food supply.
It's "not uncommon" for leafy greens to be grown close to cattle, said Kevin Reilly, deputy director for prevention services at the California Department of Health Services. The surprise, then, is not that this latest tragedy happened but that it doesn't occur more often.
"If you have cattle in a pasture that's adjoining where you're growing lettuce or spinach crops, you have a problem," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Yet good agriculture practices that would keep crops away from cattle waste are voluntary. And the FDA seems in no hurry to change the status quo. Requiring a minimum distance between crops and cattle "is something we will take into consideration as we go forward," said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA food safety center. If the agency had taken that common-sense approach years ago, the latest loss of life might have been averted.
Meanwhile, Mexico has announced a ban on lettuce imports from the United States. It wasn't so long ago that American consumers feared the quality of produce coming from foreign countries. How times have changed.
[Last modified October 17, 2006, 02:34:19]
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