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E. Coli Outbreak from Fresh Spinach Has USDA Mulling New Leafy Green Regulations

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The fresh spinach E. coli outbreak that sickened hundreds of people across the country last year has the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) considering changing the way it regulates fresh leafy greens.  If it follows through, the USDA will implement the first-ever federal regulations governing leafy green vegetables.

In September 2006, bagged fresh baby spinach sold by the Dole Food Company was linked to an E. coli outbreak that was blamed for the deaths of three people and illness in 200 others. Health officials traced the source of that E. coli contamination to a cattle ranch adjacent to the California field where the spinach was grown. It is believed that runoff from the ranch that was contaminated with cattle feces made its way into the spinach field.  Since then, several other recalls of E. coli contaminated lettuce and other greens have made headlines.

Recently growers and processors in California’s Central Valley formed a safety group, and 118 companies have signed on to the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement. Safety precautions covered by the agreement include testing the water supply monthly for E. coli and keeping animals off farmland.  But signing onto that agreement is strictly voluntary, although once growers do sign on, they are legally bound to adhere to the standards. 

The USDA is considering implementing a national version of those industry-developed standards that followed the E. coli outbreak and now govern California farmers and leafy green handlers.  While the USDA is weighing both voluntary and mandatory standards, it has been reported that the agency favors a voluntary program that allows flexibility. Such a plan won’t satisfy many consumer advocates, who are pushing for the USDA to have the power to order recalls of contaminated foods.

While many leafy green growers favor the adoption of national standards by the USDA, others are not so enthusiastic.   The Santa Cruz-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers is one group lobbying to change the rules imposed by the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement, and would likely oppose similar rules instituted by the USDA.  Small farms that grow traditional leafy greens sold only by the head or the bunch should be exempt from strict new growing and processing guidelines created in the wake of the 2006 spinach E-coli outbreak, says the Alliance. Instead, bagged salads – linked to that outbreak and most of the bacteria-related illnesses involving leafy greens in the past decade – should be the target of new food-safety regulations, the group argues.  The alliance said the new rules, which it call impractical and expensive, threaten the livelihood of small-farm operators and hurt the environment.

For now, the USDA is only considering new leafy green regulations, and the agency is looking for the public’s input.   Citizens are invited to send the USDA comments regarding new regulations by Dec. 3 to Docket Clerk, Marketing Order Administration Branch, Fruit and Vegetable Programs, AMS, USDA, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, STOP 0237, Washington, DC 20250-0237 or e-mail to www.regulations.gov Reference docket No. AMS-FV-07-0090.
E. Coli Fresh Spinach Outbreak USDA

The USDA is considering new regulations for fresh leafy greens following the 2006 fresh spinach e. coli outbreak that sickened hundreds.

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