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To Fill Food Safety Gap, Processors Pay Inspectors

Andrew Martin, The New York Times
Friday, 17 Apr 2009 | 10:16 AM ET
Wheat Fields
Wheat Fields

Clipboard in hand, Debra Anderson spent three hours one recent sunny morning trooping through a field of romaine lettuce looking for trouble.

She searched for animal tracks at the Church Brothers field, watched picking crews wash their hands and sampled rinse water to make sure it had enough chlorine to kill germs. Though she is a California state employee, Ms. Anderson was working on behalf of the food industry, part of the latest experiment in improving safety.

With huge losses from food-poisoning recalls and little oversight from the federal Food and Drug Administration, some sectors of the food industry are cobbling together their own form of regulation in an attempt to reassure consumers. They are paying other government agencies to do what the F.D.A. rarely does: muck through fields and pore over records to make sure food is handled properly.

These do-it-yourself programs may provide an enhanced safety level in segments of the industry that have embraced them. But with industry itself footing the bill, some safety advocates worry that the approach could introduce new problems and new conflicts of interest. And they contend that the programs lack the rigor of a well-run federal inspection system.

“It’s an understandable response when the federal government has left a vacuum,” said Michael R. Taylor, a former officer in two federal food-safety agencies and now a professor at George Washington University. But, he added, “it’s not a substitute” for serious federal regulation.

Nonetheless, the approach is spreading. After two salmonella outbreaks earlier this decade, the almond industry developed a pasteurization program that is overseen by the federal Department of Agriculture. The Florida tomato industry, implicated in several salmonella outbreaks, persuaded the state to take on the task of regulating food safety on farms and at packing houses.

In California, the “leafy greens” industry, which grows spinach and lettuce, was desperate after a 2006 outbreak of a harmful strain of Escherichia coli, the intestinal germ. As Americans stopped eating spinach for weeks, the industry suffered $100 million in losses. It now pays the state money so that auditors like Ms. Anderson can inspect farm fields for safety. The arrangement is called the Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement.

Arizona created a similar leafy greens agreement, and plans are afoot to expand it nationwide. Other food industries have expressed interest in the leafy greens model.

“They realize they can’t sit back and wait” for an outbreak to occur, said Thomas A. Nassif, president and chief executive of the Western Growers Association, who recently outlined the leafy greens program to representatives of the peanut industry, subject of another recent recall. “It will be expanded.”

The leafy greens agreement and others like it are an outgrowth of the nation’s hodge-podge food safety system, which roughly splits oversight between the Department of Agriculture — responsible for meat, poultry and some egg products — and the FDA, which is supposed to monitor the remaining 80 percent of the food supply. But where the Agriculture Department employs a field force of 7,800 to inspect all the cows, pigs and chickens that are carved into packaged meats, the F.D.A.’s 1,307 inspectors rarely lay eyes on the vast majority of the products they are entrusted with keeping safe.

For many years, the food industry lobbied against initiatives that would have strengthened the F.D.A.’s oversight. But industry attitudes are changing as food-borne pathogens turn up repeatedly in foodstuffs once regarded as safe, like peanuts and pistachio nuts, costing those industries millions in lost sales.

With public confidence in the food supply on the line and little appetite for new regulations during the Bush administration, industries went looking for other government agencies that might provide a semblance of oversight.

California’s leafy greens industry turned to 1930s-era laws, passed at the national level and by some states, that allow produce sectors to work together to solve marketing problems. Called marketing agreements or marketing orders, they allow industry to create regulations that are then enforced by government auditors.

Historically, such programs were used to set minimum quality, size and grade requirements for fruits and vegetables and to standardize packaging. But now, they are being adopted to impose safety requirements.

While lauding the recent impulse to act, several food-safety experts said they were troubled leaving safety to industry discretion.

"The facts are the facts."

“Industry self-regulation didn’t protect our money, and industry self-regulation won’t protect our food,” said Carol L. Tucker-Foreman, a safety advocate with the Consumer Federation of America, in an e-mail message. “We want every inspector to be paid by and owe their loyalty to the people who eat, not to the owner of an unsanitary produce packing operation. You can’t work for both.”

But defenders of the programs said they were the best option available in lieu of tougher federal regulation, especially given chronic shortfalls in government budgets. Besides, the new approach is working, said Scott Horsfall, chief executive of the leafy greens program. In the two years since it started, there has been no new outbreak tied to California leafy greens.

Dr. David Acheson, the F.D.A.’s associate commissioner for foods, said he believed the marketing agreements were a positive step by industry to improve the safety of their products. But he said the new administration was taking a more proactive approach that he hoped would include new food safety standards and more inspectors.

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“I do see us in a new environment,” he said. “Clearly the direction we are headed, and we need to head, is the government setting the right standards and holding industry to it.”

Under the agreement, the produce industry pays the California Department of Agriculture about $1 million a year to perform about 500 inspections, a fifth of them unannounced. Participation in marketing agreements is voluntary, but in California, more than 95 percent of the leafy greens industry signed up, in part because major processors like Dole and Fresh Express agreed to participate. Produce growers had little choice but to follow.

While critics maintain that marketing agreements are not tough enough, Ms. Anderson’s audit the other day of the Church Brothers’ lettuce fields appeared to be painstaking. (It was announced in advance, and she had a newspaper reporter and photographer in tow.)

Sporting a deep tan and a hairnet, Ms. Anderson, 55, inspected the perimeter of the romaine lettuce field for tracks, because animals can spread germs on produce. She inspected the workers’ toilets. When a field test suggested the water used to rinse lettuce might not be killing germs, she briefly halted the operation. (It turned out a worker had used the wrong test strip.) After completing her field inspection, Ms. Anderson combed Church Brothers’ records.

The problems she discovered were minor. Nonetheless, Mr. Horsfall said the company was expected to fix them, and auditors would check again. If violations are serious, a grower can be tossed from the program. So far, six participants have been thrown out, mostly because they repeatedly failed to solve minor problems.

“We want them to be successful,” said Steve Thomas, Ms. Anderson’s supervisor. “But the facts are the facts.”

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