The Process Behind Produce Inspection Host Liane Hansen speaks to Caroline Smith DeWaal about the recent problems with spinach and the inspection process for produce. Ms. DeWaal directs the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The Process Behind Produce Inspection

The Process Behind Produce Inspection

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Host Liane Hansen speaks to Caroline Smith DeWaal about the recent problems with spinach and the inspection process for produce. Ms. DeWaal directs the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Federal officials now say that it's safe to eat spinach not grown in California's Salinas Valley. The recent E. coli outbreak across the United States has been blamed on contaminated bagged and pre-washed spinach. Most consumers have heard of E. coli, but usually in connection with infected meat; the 1993 E. coli outbreak at fast food chain Jack in the Box, for example. Improved inspection of meat processing and packaging facilities have helped avoid further problems, but inspection of fresh produce has not received the same attention.

Joining us from Chicago is Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of Food Safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Welcome to the show, Caroline.

Ms. CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL (Director, Food Safety, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: So in general, how does produce inspection differ from that of meat and poultry?

Ms. DEWAAL: Well, meat and poultry is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And under a 1906 law, they are required to go into meat plants every day. They inspect them every single day. And if it's a slaughter plant, they inspect it constantly. They look at every single carcass.

HANSEN: And what about produce? Who...

Ms. DEWAAL: Well, produce is one of the many foods which is regulated by our Food and Drug Administration. So it's done by a totally different agency that's actually in an entirely separate department. But FDA's law, which also originated in 1906, doesn't have the same intensive inspection regime. And as a result, FDA has really suffered. They don't have the kind of inspection force that USDA does.

And so when it gets down to the farm level, FDA rarely visits a farm unless there is an actual outbreak going on. So they end up like a fire department, running around looking for outbreaks, stopping them, you know, sending the scientist out to the fields, which they're doing right now. They, you know, they have - they're a great fire department. They can go out after the fact and try to put out the fire. But what they're not doing is preventing the fires from starting to begin with.

HANSEN: Should - what sort of systems then are in place to deal with these produce contamination issues should they arise?

Ms. DEWAAL: Well, the - first of all, FDA and CDC have been aware of the problem with produce for a number of years. And we've been watching this trend of growing outbreaks linked to fresh fruits, vegetables, salads, other dishes containing vegetables. We've been watching this for about five years, and our data is from the government. So we know the government is seeing the exact same data.

Now, FDA, back in the - probably the late 1990s - issued guidance for the produce growers. They said, gosh, you need to be using safe handling of manure products. You need to be using good water in production and have basic sanitation facilities for your workers. So they put out these guidance to the industry, but the guidance are unenforceable. And I think it's because FDA just doesn't have the resources to do the job here.

HANSEN: Are the guidelines that they sent out voluntary?

Ms. DEWAAL: Yes.

HANSEN: Ah.

Ms. DEWAAL: They're completely voluntary, both for the domestic industry and for imported produce. And we get a lot of imported produce these days.

HANSEN: What do you think is the solution to prevent further contaminations of produce?

Ms. DEWAAL: Well, I think that we need - the industry needs to take the problem very seriously, because the industry is the first line of defense to preventing this. And in many cases, like in the meat area, where we had problems with E. coli-015787 in ground beef, the beef industry ultimately ended up really addressing that problem by test-and-hold programs in ground beef and some other programs that they came up with themselves. But they only did it after the government said you've got to do this.

HANSEN: Is government regulation possible, even if no one knows what the source of this contamination is?

Ms. DEWAAL: Well, what we do know is, there is some common sense things that the growers have to do to ensure the safety, to maximize the safety of the products they're producing. It's simple things. It's things like not using raw manure, using mostly composted manure, making sure your composting is working correctly. You also need water control over your water sources, both for irrigation and for the washing process. And then critically important, the farm workers need sanitation facilities close to where the fields are. And they need hand-washing facilities - that's vital. These people are actually harvesting the food we're going to eat.

So those are simple steps. And yes, the government, FDA could mandate those. The question is, once they mandate it, how will they check it? They don't have the staff today to do it.

HANSEN: Caroline Smith DeWaal is the director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Thank you so much for your time.

Ms. DEWAAL: Thank you.

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