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The government took a big step today toward a new system for making sure that fresh fruit and vegetables are safe to eat. The Food and Drug Administration proposed new regulations that will cover many of the country's food processors and farmers who grow fresh produce. NPR's Dan Charles has that story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The federal government has never before laid out rules for how farmers should keep their fruit or vegetables free of dangerous bacteria. But those healthy foods can and do make people sick. Two years ago, cantaloupes that carried Listeria bacteria killed at least 33 people. Government scientists tracked the fruit to a farm in Colorado. But FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says public health officials shouldn't just react to disease outbreaks. It should try to prevent them, and they can.

DR. MARGARET HAMBURG: Modern preventive standards will reduce outbreaks, will reduce illness, and will benefit American families and our food industry as well.

CHARLES: Congress asked for these regulations two years ago when it passed a far-reaching food safety law. Writing them took longer than expected because it's a complicated problem. Disease-causing bacteria can get into a field of fresh vegetables in lots of ways: through compost that hasn't been properly treated, irrigation water from contaminated ponds, farm workers who haven't washed their hands or wild animals who leave their droppings in fields.

The FDA's proposed rules deal with all of that and more. They're hundreds of pages long. Now, people on all sides of the safety debate are going through every page. David Gombas, a food safety expert for the United Fresh Produce Association, an industry group, actually welcomed the new regulations.

DR. DAVID GOMBAS: We are glad to see them.

CHARLES: Big vegetable growers and retailers already have come up with their own safety rules. Many of those rules are similar to what the FDA now says it will require. Some industry rules are actually tougher. And Gombas says having one nationwide standard is better than lots of different, private rules.

GOMBAS: What we've been saying all along is we need federally mandated rules that everyone can look at and say, yes, these are the procedures and practices that must be in place to assure that produce is grown safely.

CHARLES: But Gombas does plan to complain about one thing. He'd like the FDA's rules to apply to all farms, large and small. The FDA's proposal does not apply to farms that sell less than half a million dollars worth of food each year and sell to consumers or stores nearby. Congress specifically exempted these farms from the regulations, saying that small farmers cannot afford to comply with them. Food safety advocates, meanwhile, like Erik Olson, director of Food Programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts, were happy that the FDA finally had released something.

ERIK OLSON: This is a big deal. We're talking about the first major overhaul of our food safety controls for FDA, really, since the Great Depression.

CHARLES: But some food safety advocates have argued the rules should require fresh food producers to conduct random tests of their vegetables for harmful bacteria. The FDA's draft rules do not require this. The agency says such tests don't usually catch instances of contamination. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are encouraged by sections of the FDA's document that say you can produce safe food without getting rid of wild animals. Jennifer Biringer from The Nature Conservancy's office in California says some of the strict food safety rules set up by private companies have pushed farmers to get rid of habitat for animals.

JENNIFER BIRINGER: Farmers are, for example, being asked to create almost antiseptic conditions in their farm fields by doing things like removing vegetation along riverbeds.

CHARLES: Everybody has 120 days to comment on the draft regulations and propose changes. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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