Consumer advocates and some lawmakers say that a California company's recall of spinach because of a salmonella scare shows that the federal government must do more to protect the U.S. food supply, but industry officials call it proof that their voluntary regulations are working.
Metz Fresh, a King City-based grower and shipper, recalled 8,000 cartons of fresh spinach Wednesday after salmonella was found during a routine test of spinach it was processing for shipment. More than 90 percent of the possibly contaminated cartons never reached stores, company spokesman Greg Larson said.
California's leafy greens industry adopted the voluntary regulations last year after a fatal E. coli outbreak, but advocates said a national, mandatory inspection and testing program overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is needed.
"Eight thousand cartons left the plant for distribution in the U.S. That's 8,000 too many," said Jean Halloran, a food safety expert with Consumers Union. "At this point, we are relying on the leafy green industry to police itself."
Some growers said Metz Fresh's ability to catch the bacteria showed that the new testing regimes are working. No illnesses have been reported from eating spinach linked to the company.
"I think the test of the industry is how we react to these types of situations," said grower Joseph Pezzini, who heads the board that administers the new produce safety rules. "No one was harmed by the product and that's important."
Larsen said the recalled spinach, which was picked Aug. 22, had tested negative in earlier field and production tests. Metz Fresh began telling stores and restaurants on Aug. 24 not to sell or serve the lettuce after a first round of tests came up positive.
"The first thing we are looking at right now is making sure this product, as much as possible, is under our control," he said. "The next step is to back up and take a hard look at how this happened."
Metz Fresh has complied with the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, a set of voluntary food safety rules drafted after last year's E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach killed three people and sickened 200. By joining the program, participants also agree to have their fields and plants checked for compliance.
In two separate plant and field visits earlier this month, California auditors found no signs of danger at Metz Fresh, said Scott Horsfall, who oversees the industry-sponsored program.
"I'm not trying to put a pretty face on it, but the overall system is working very well," Horsfall said. "Consumers can have a high degree of confidence in this product, notwithstanding this recent problem."
But some legislators said the latest recall showed the FDA had yet to improve a patchwork produce safety system critics believe is vastly understaffed and poorly monitored.
"This in no way should be seen as a success story," said state Sen. Dean Florez, who chairs a committee on food-borne illnesses. He said that Metz Fresh should have caught the salmonella before any of its spinach reached consumers, and that he has written the state's agriculture secretary demanding answers about "this breakdown in California's food safety system."
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, is crafting legislation that would set up national food safety practices for growing and processing fresh produce that run the highest risk of causing food-borne illnesses.
"This is a food safety concern for consumers who wonder if it is OK to serve this produce to their families, and it is an agricultural concern for growers who face another blow to sales of their product," said Harkin, who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. "It is long overdue for the FDA to exercise more oversight of food safety practices."
FDA and state public health officials said Thursday they were investigating the company's records, tests and products.
Salmonella sickens about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and kills about 600.
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