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Calls to improve US food safety gain urgency

Latest food-contamination case raises the stakes for growers, public officials.

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Pinning down the culprit in the latest food-contamination case can seem a bit like the guessing game of Clue: a California grower, at the Taco Bell, with the scallions?

Maybe not. Monday's acknowledgement by federal health officials that green onions served by Taco Bell can't be confirmed as the source of an E. coli outbreak this month shows the challenges of tracing the bacteria strain – in a timely fashion – to its source. Public health advocates say it also shows, again, why government oversight of the US food chain needs to be improved.

The announcement by David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Christopher Braden of the Centers for Disease Control means it's unknown which foods – if any – led to the reported illnesses of 64 people who visited Taco Bells in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and South Carolina. Last week, after preliminary tests cast suspicion on green onions as a source of E. coli bacteria, Taco Bell ordered them removed from its restaurants nationwide.

Along with E. coli contamination of spinach in September, which health officials linked to three deaths and 206 cases of illness, this latest episode is giving a greater urgency to calls for tighter controls and more funding for enforcement. Another bacterium, salmonella, was found in fresh tomatoes this fall, which health officials say made 200 others ill. And even as officials cast doubt on green onions as the problem at Taco Bell, they said a lab detected the problematic E. coli strain in white onions from a Taco Bell in Napa, N.Y.

As a result, major producers of fruits and vegetables are speeding up efforts to develop industry standards for farm inspections, water- and soil-quality monitoring, and sanitation. The Western Growers Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation, too, are fast-tracking plans they say could be in effect by spring.

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