California produce safety bills pass first test

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food and drug administration Food safety

Three bills designed to implement tougher food safety rules for
growers and handlers of spinach and other leafy greens were this
week approved in California by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Senate bills 200, 201 and 202 on Tuesday passed their first legislative test in Sacramento where they were presented by Senator Dean Florez. The bills were prompted by the outbreak of E coli in September last year that was traced back to packaged cut spinach originating from California. The outbreak killed three people and sickened more than 200 people across the US. The outbreak has since been traced back to a 50-acre spinach plot. The contaminated strain has been found in a nearby stream and in cattle feces and in wild pigs, officials said. According to a statement issued by Florez this week, the new measures would expand the authority of the state's lead public health agency to respond to future outbreaks, call for the creation of strict standards for growers of leafy greens and require an efficient traceback system to prevent industry-wide economic losses in the event of a future outbreak. The first bill would give the Department of Health Services the "much-needed"​ authority to recall, quarantine or destroy produce that may pose a food safety threat. The measure also creates an inspection program to address the threat of outbreaks. DHS inspectors would have the authority to conduct periodic on-farm inspections, including testing of water, soil and produce. "While DHS enforces Good Manufacturing Practices for processors of leafy greens, no such food safety standards have been established for leafy green growers,"​ said the statement. The second measure - Senate Bill 201 - mandates Good Agricultural Practices for leafy green growers, covering everything from water and fertilizer use, to worker hygiene, to the creation of buffer zones between fields and potential contamination sources. Growers would be required to maintain extensive documentation of these practices. These documents would be reviewed by DHS to ensure compliance. The third bill calls for the creation of a traceback system that can quickly trace contaminated produce through the various stages of the distribution process, from farm to processor, to distributor, to retailer. "In the most recent E. coli outbreaks, lettuce and spinach producers nationwide took a major economic hit, because it could not immediately be determined where the infected produce came from and every farm was suspect. The ability to quickly find the specific source in an outbreak, combined with DHS' ability to quarantine or destroy suspect produce, will prevent a similar industry-wide hit in future E coli outbreaks." After approval by the Senate Agriculture Committee, the bills were sent on to the Senate Health Committee. Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new regulatory guidance calling on fresh-cut produce processors to immediately implement international food safety standards to prevent the contamination of their products. The advisory called on the processors to implement the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system throughout their supply chains. The use of HACCP is a requirement in the meat-processing sector. The international safety standard is designed to prevent, eliminate, or reduce to acceptable levels the microbial, chemical, and physical hazards associated with food production. Andrew von Eschenbach, the FDA commissioner of food and drugs said the guidance would help in the process of regaining consumer confidence in fresh-cut products. "Americans are eating more fresh-cut produce, which we encourage as part of a healthy diet,"​ he said. "But fresh cut-produce is one area in which we see foodborne illness occur. Offering clearer guidance to industry should aid in the reduction of health hazards that may be introduced or increased during the fresh-cut produce production process."

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