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Senators call for tighter food safety laws

By Lorraine Heller , 14-Dec-2006

A number of Democratic senators have called for the establishment of a joint task force to examine recent outbreaks of E.coli, and suggest legal changes designed to prevent future problems.

In a letter sent to US regulatory agencies this week, the senators added their voice to growing concerns surrounding cases of food poisoning that affect millions of Americans every year.

"We urge your agencies to convene a multi-agency task force and develop recommendations on how to effectively address the problem of foodborne illness associated with fresh produce," wrote Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton of New York.

Addressed to the heads of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the letter called for a task force would report to Congress and the public on the cause of the latest incidents and recommend changes in laws and regulations to protect future outbreaks.

The move follows a recent E.coli outbreak in New York, linked to green onions in fast food chain Taco Bell.

"These latest incidents illustrate that we need to do more to reduce the risk of food-borne illness in our country. At greatest risk are older Americans, children, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems," the Senators wrote on Tuesday.

Since early December, at least 169 people have been sickened by E. Coli after eating at restaurants affiliated with the same fast food chain, according to the letter.

Earlier this year, E. coli-contaminated spinach killed at least 3 people and sickened more than 200 in the US.

At the time, a survey by the NPD Group found that in the aftermath of the outbreak, Americans' awareness and concern levels about the safety of produce had reached an all-time high.

The survey by the consumer and retail consultancy, which has been tracking awareness and concern about E. coli since 2001, found that 88 per cent of participants were aware and concerned about E. coli. Another 11 per cent said they were aware but not concerned about the health implications. Only one per cent said they were not aware of the issue.

However, the survey also found that the outbreak did not appear to have had an adverse effect on people's intentions to eat salad. Only six per cent said they planned to eat spinach less often due to the outbreak.

Produce has also been linked to previous foodborne disease outbreaks. In 2004, an outbreak of Hepatitis A was traced to lettuce and tomatoes in California. The outbreak made 14 people ill. In 2003, an outbreak of Hepatitis A in Pennsylvania was traced to green onions from a Chi-Chi's restaurant. The outbreak killed 4 people and sickened 600.

And although the FDA has issued voluntary food safety guidance to the produce industry over the years, these recent outbreaks indicate that this voluntary approach may be insufficient to protect the public, said the senators in their letter.

"We would welcome your recommendations on what changes in law may need to be made by Congress, and what steps can be taken at the agency level. We would strongly encourage the task force to take into consideration the views of appropriate interested parties, such as small farmers and other growers, food safety consumer groups, industry representatives, and state agencies," they wrote.

According to USDA's Economic Research Service, hazards in food cause an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.

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