RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Hard to forget the spinach scare of 2006. It was one year ago today that the Food and Drug Administration warned Americans that fresh spinach might be contaminated with E. coli.
The outbreak was eventually traced to a ranch near Salinas, California, but not before three people died and about 200 got sick. Since then, the farms that produce California's leafy greens have started a new voluntary inspection program.
Ben Adler of member station KXJZ reports.
BEN ADLER: I think I wore the wrong shoes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MIKE BROWN (Auditor, California Department of Food and Agriculture): Yeah. You learn quick.
ADLER: Mike Brown is trekking through some pretty thick mud on the edge of lettuce field south of Salinas. It's about 9:00 o'clock on a fresh September morning, and the fog is rolling back from the Salinas Valley to the western hills.
Brown is one of about 10 new auditors with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Today he is looking at some paw prints alongside the freshly irrigated fields.
Mr. BROWN: Here's those tracks that I picked up.
ADLER: Brown says they look like dog tracks but he's not sure. They could be from a fox or coyote.
Mr. BROWN: I don't see any footprints going into the field, so I'm just going to take a GPS reading from here and note that there was animal tracks.
ADLER: These field audits are staples of a new industry-backed program designed to minimize future contamination from sources like animals or tainted water. Leafy greens handlers - or companies that send the product to market - sign up for the voluntary program. They agree to keep an eye on their growers and make sure they follow industry-written food safety measures.
Mr. GORDON POULSON (Auditor, California Department of Food and Agriculture): We always look at each well or water source on the property, on the ranch.
ADLER: Auditors like Brown and this one, Gordon Poulson, walk through fields to look for red flags, like animal tracks, holes in fences or farm workers who aren't wearing gloves. But they don't test water samples. The handler hires an independent testing company to do that. If a handler fails an audit, which hasn't happened yet, the company risks losing its buyers.
Today about a dozen workers are harvesting romaine lettuce. The handler's production manager, Lee Papazian, stands with auditor Gordon Poulson at the edge of a nearby reservoir used for irrigation.
Mr. LEE PAPAZIAN (Production Manager): You know, if we saw animal tracks here, we'd pull a test before we watered it again.
Mr. POULSON: To me that's an example that this program is working, in my opinion. It truly is.
Mr. POULSON: Because you see the reactions that the growers take, the companies take. They don't have to be told to do anything. They're out there trying to do it on their own to make this product safer - as safe as it can be.
ADLER: Of course, not everyone agrees.
State Senator DEAN FLOREZ (Democrat, California): Unfortunately, the only test of this system is really working is somebody getting sick, someone unfortunately, dying.
ADLER: State Senator Dean Florez represents part of California's Central Valley.
State Sen. FLOREZ: And then the people are going to say, well, the experiment didn't work. But at what cost? I mean, who died? How many people got sick? How many infants were injured?
ADLER: Florez does not think a voluntary system is enough. He wants to mandate stronger food safety measures like testing crops while they're in the ground and as they're harvested. And he wants state health officials to enforce the measures with fines for companies who don't comply. But his package of bills has stalled in the California legislature and he says he is worried.
State Sen. FLOREZ: Until people get sick for the 23rd outbreak, we're going to continue to operate on a voluntary basis.
ADLER: But David Acheson is a pragmatist. He's the FDA's point man on food safety, and he knows it's impossible to eliminate food-borne illness completely. Still, he says, the industry is on the right track.
Dr. DAVID ACHESON (FDA): Do I believe that the leafy greens supply is a little safer than it was a year ago? Yeah, I think it probably is. Is it as safe as I would like it to be or the agency would like it to be? No, it probably isn't.
ADLER: Which for now, Acheson says, is about all that's practical.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Monterey, California.
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