Six months after E. coli contaminated spinach killed three people and sickened 200 others in 19 states, the federal Food and Drug Administration has crafted new guidelines for the food industry to follow to help keep fresh-cut produce safe.
Welcomed by many producers and growers, the FDA recommendations outline practices that ought to be followed – from handling to processing to storing – to "minimize the potential for microbial contamination." But consumer groups and some in Congress criticize the guidelines as inadequate, primarily because compliance is voluntary, not mandatory.
With release of the recommendations this week, all sides are taking the opportunity to determine if the US food supply is safer from contaminants – and if safer is safe enough. Many note that the number of cases of food-borne illness tied to produce have been growing recently.
"The most fascinating thing about [the FDA guidelines], all the way through, is that these are nonbinding.... No one has to do anything in here if they don't want to," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. The 41-page document defines standards governing everything from water use and worker health and hygiene to training, disease containment, and reporting of contaminants.
"This is merely the FDA's best thinking of what the produce industry might want to try if they want to stop the problems," says Ms. DeWaal. The standards, she says, should be both mandated and enforced. "What we have now is too little, too late ... and not sufficient to actually prevent further outbreaks from occurring."
The FDA and some producer and grower associations counter that guidelines are an improvement over no guidelines. They are more flexible and could be put in place sooner than mandatory laws could be, and can be a first step in a process of developing more stringent controls. Guidelines have a track record of success, they say, citing voluntary measures concerning production of sprouts that reduced contamination levels in the past few years.