Human - Animal Feces Seen
as Main Risk to US Produce
The New York Times

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The biggest food safety risk for fresh fruits and vegetables as they are grown, picked or processed comes from human and animal waste, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday. In the Clinton administration's latest action to beef up food safety, the FDA issued a set of draft guidelines for U.S. and foreign growers to carefully monitor worker hygiene, water quality, manure management and transportation. U.S. health officials have documented a soaring number of foodborne illnesses linked to raspberries, alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupes, mesclun and other produce. The 34-page draft guidelines urged growers to give workers lessons on basic hygiene such as using soap to wash their hands, covering lesions or wounds that could come into contact with produce, and using only clean toilets. The FDA guidelines identified ``the major source of contamination'' for fresh produce as human or animal feces. ``We think just proper controls and proper attention to detail would make a big difference in food safety,'' said Lou Carson, the interim director of the Food Safety Initiative launched last autumn by President Clinton. ``It is our belief that these guidelines would not be very costly.''
But grower groups disagreed with the FDA's assessment that human and animal feces are the biggest risk of contamination as produce is grown, picked and packaged. ``Most foodborne disease outbreaks that happen further down the distribution line are due to fecal contamination because people preparing food are not properly washing their hands,'' said Stacey Zawal, an official with United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association. ``That is not necessarily true for growers and packers.''
Some U.S. grower organizations have expressed concern that the agency is interfering with on-farm practices. Others object to the FDA's proposal to have growers formally document the picking, handling and transportation of produce so that health officials could quickly recall foods if necessary. The FDA recommendations are due to be finalized by the FDA later this year for use by U.S. and foreign growers. The matter of encouraging foreign growers to adopt the guidelines remains somewhat tricky but FDA officials say it is vital because of the huge amount of imported produce.
That plan has been criticized by the U.S. produce industry as likely to spark retaliation from trading partners. The United States imported some $1.9 billion worth of fresh produce last year at the same time the industry exported $3 billion in produce to other nations.
``If we're going to make any credible effort in reducing microbial contamination of foods, we're going to have to address food imports as well as those domestically grown,'' Carson said in an interview.
More than 9,000 Americans die each year from foodborne disease and some scientists believe fresh produce is the biggest carrier of contamination. Disinfectants, sanitizers, ionizing treatments and ultraviolet radiation may be useful for some produce. For example, orange growers in California are already rinsing crates with sanitizing agents before fruit is shipped.
Consumer groups criticized the FDA guidelines as of little use because they will not carry the force of law. But stricter regulations could evolve as researchers find new technology or methods to kill harmful bacteria or parasites, the FDA said. ``As we learn more about pathogens and fresh produce, and where we can establish controls and where they are appropriate, I believe the agency would act appropriately,'' Carson said. The Clinton administration has urged Congress to increase the FDA's budget so agency inspectors can go to foreign countries and halt imports of unsafe fruits and vegetables. Currently, fewer than 2 percent of shipments of imported produce are inspected by the FDA. The FDA said it would schedule two public meetings in late May on its draft guidelines for growers.

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