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Bagged Spinach Recall Prompts Calls for More Scrutiny of Food Industry

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Wednesday’s recall of Salmonella-contaminated bagged spinach has precipitated something of an argument between consumer advocates and food industry officials. Consumer groups say that the recall of Metz Fresh spinach is proof that more governmental oversight of the food processing industry is needed. But people who work in that industry claim that the very same recall is proof that the current regulations work just fine.

Metz Fresh recalled its bagged spinach Wednesday after tests came back showing that some of the spinach was contaminated with Salmonella. Metz Fresh received the preliminary Salmonella finding last Friday, and further testing confirmed the contamination on Tuesday. While the company did boast that it was able to stop shipment of most of the spinach on Friday, 8,000 Salmonella-tainted cartons were still sent to stores. Metz waited five more days before the company informed the public of the spinach danger. A spokesman for California growers told the Associated Press that because there have been no reports of Salmonella poisoning related to the spinach, the Metz Fresh recall represents a success for the industry.

Consumer groups say that it doesn’t matter that 90 percent of Metz Fresh’s tainted spinach was kept away from consumers. What does matter are the 8,000 cartons that did end up in stores. Many consumers never hear about product recalls, so a lot of people could run the risk of becoming sick with Salmonella poisoning in the near future. And since many mild cases of Salmonella poisoning never get reported to health officials, there is really no way to know if anyone did get sick from the tainted spinach. Groups like Consumers Union argue that the spinach never should have been shipped before test results where in.

But Metz Fresh’s actions were completely in line with the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, a set of voluntary safety rules that many growers signed last year after an E. coli outbreak was linked to fresh spinach. The fact that those rules allowed the spinach to go out before safety tests were completed shows that they are too weak. And the fact that even these rules are voluntary is ludicrous, say consumer advocacy groups. As a result, Consumers Union and others are pushing for a mandatory testing and inspection program overseen by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

These groups do have some support in Congress. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has said that it is time for the FDA to take a larger role in food safety. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, he is working on legislation that would establish national food safety standards for growers and food processors. However, the food industry’s political lobby is powerful, and it is uncertain that strong measures would be approved by Congress or signed by the President. But until some action is taken, American consumers will just have to trust a profit-driven food industry to police itself.

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