September was “Food Safety Month.” During September and the ensuing two months there have been at least four reported bacterial outbreaks tied to produce. The bacteria have been the deadly E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. The produce: spinach, tomatoes and now green onions. First it was announced that over 200 people were sickened, many with acute kidney failure, and four people died after eating Dole spinach grown in the Salinas Valley. Then the announcements came that not one, but two Salmonella outbreaks had been traced to contaminated tomatoes grown in the Southeast and served in restaurants, sickening nearly 400.

As if the events of the last three months were not enough to warrant action, it must be recognized that the produce and restaurant industries have had plenty of notice of continuing problems through a sad litany of similar outbreaks.  In 2000, Taco Bell food was again to blame for a hepatitis A outbreak involving green onions.  In 2003, green onions were yet again implicated in a Pennsylvania outbreak that left over 600 sick with hepatitis A, causing at least four deaths and one liver transplant.  In 2004, salmonella-tainted tomatoes, again grown in the Southeast, sickened 450 people who had eaten at convenience stores in the Northeast.  And in 2005, Dole lettuce caused dozens more E. coli illnesses, including one young girl who suffered acute kidney failure.  The 2005 Dole outbreak was the nineteenth E. coli O157:H7 outbreak tied to spinach or lettuce since 1995.  In those previous outbreaks, nearly 500 were sickened and two elderly women died. 

One would think that with thousands of Americans poisoned by produce, hundreds hospitalized, many with severe, life-long complications or deaths, that Congress would have asked growers, producers, manufacturers, restaurants, grocers, and consumers to the table to talk about these ongoing outbreaks and how to prevent them in the future. But, Congress has been all too absent, all too willing to sit by and watch consumers become sickened or die from eating produce. Perhaps even more surprising is that Congress has not helped the multi-million and billion dollar corporate growers, producers, manufacturers, restaurants and grocers, help themselves by enacting food safety rules to avoid poisoned produce and sick customers in the future.

Congress needs to act now. What needs to be discussed:

  • A thorough, scientifically-based discussion on how these recent outbreaks actually happened and what can be done to prevent or limit the next one.
  • Increased funding for university-based research, health department epidemiological surveillance, and prevention of bacterial and viral contamination.
  • Consideration of pre-consumption bacterial and viral testing of raw food products, especially those where no “kill step” is expected.
  • A discussion of making mandatory good agricultural and food handling practices.
  • A review of the proposal to create a single federal agency charged with ensuring the nation’s food safety, whether the food is grown within the United States or in foreign countries.

It is time for Congress to accept a leadership role and call hearings, not only to explore the reasons for the past months’ outbreaks, but also to help prevent the next one. Congress must reach out to all facets of the produce industry, from “farm to fork,” to consumers who bear the burden of illnesses, and to academics and regulators to find reasonable, workable solutions to prevent produce-related illnesses. More regulation may not help. Testing all products may not be feasible. More funding for enforcement for the FDA, CDC and USDA may not work. And, more funding for university research may also not be the answer. However, getting all to the same table is a start. Congress, you need to do the inviting.

Bill Marler is managing partner at the Marler Clark law firm in Seattle.