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Originally published September 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 13, 2007 at 2:06 AM

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Safety standards not raised after E. coli outbreak

Government regulators never acted on calls for stepped-up inspections of leafy greens after last year's deadly E. coli spinach outbreak, leaving...

The Associated Press

SALINAS, Calif. — Government regulators never acted on calls for stepped-up inspections of leafy greens after last year's deadly E. coli spinach outbreak, leaving the safety of the nation's salads to a patchwork of largely unenforceable rules and the industry itself, an investigation found.

The regulations governing farms in the Central California region known as the nation's "Salad Bowl" remain much as they were when bacteria from a cattle ranch infected spinach that killed three people and sickened more than 200.

A review of data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that federal officials inspect companies growing and processing salad greens an average of once every 3.9 years. Some proposals in Congress would require such inspections at least four times a year.

In California, which grows three-quarters of the nation's greens, processors created a new inspection system but with voluntary guidelines that were unable to keep bagged spinach tainted with salmonella from reaching grocery shelves last month.

Despite widespread calls for spot-testing of processing plants handling leafy greens after last year's E. coli outbreak, California public-health inspectors have not been given the authority to conduct such tests, so no such tests have been done, the review found.

"We have strict standards for lead paint on toys, but we don't seem to take the same level of seriousness about something that we consume every day," said Darryl Howard, whose mother, Betty Howard, 83, of Richland, died as a result of E. coli-related complications.

She was one of three people to die in the outbreak that began in August 2006 that also sickened more than 200 people from Maine to Arizona.

By mid-September, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a two-week nationwide warning not to eat fresh spinach. Authorities eventually traced the likely source of the E. coli to a cattle ranch about 40 miles east of Salinas.

State Sen. Dean Florez, a Central Valley Democrat who sponsored three failed bills to enact mandatory regulations for leafy greens this year, said momentum faded as the E. coli case dropped from the headlines and the industry lobbied hard for self-regulation.

"That legislation was held up waiting for this voluntary approach for food safety to see if it works," said Florez, who is skeptical of that approach.

"It only took one 50-acre parcel to poison 200 people and bring the industry to its knees," he said. "We don't get why the industry would be playing this game of roulette with our food."

Last year's outbreak prompted a temporary downturn in sales of salad greens, but more than 5 million bags of salad are sold each day nationwide.

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In March, the Bush administration issued a draft of its guidance to minimize microbial hazards of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables.

Many growers and producers are either unaware of the guidelines or aren't complying, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer-advocacy group.

"Inspection alone isn't going to fix the problem, unless the farmers utilize food-safety plans that are effective for controlling pathogens," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the center's food-safety division. "They're not getting at the source of the contamination: on the farm."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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