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NY Sen. Schumer says loose fed oversight puts food supply at risk

Jan 1, 2006 | AP

Sen. Charles Schumer said Sunday the three deaths from spinach tainted with E. coli and the recall of 5,200 pounds of ground beef that may be contaminated with the same strain of the bacteria are clear signs "to get our food safety house in order."

Schumer, D-N.Y., said federal efforts to monitor the food supply are hampered because of jurisdictional tangles and a lack of funding at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency with oversight of non-meat food products.

He is co-sponsoring legislation, authored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and co-sponsored by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to create a new unified Food Safety Agency.

"This recent outbreak must be a wake-up call to get our food safety house in order because right now it's in pure disarray," Schumer said at his Manhattan office. "Instead of having 12 agencies butting heads and leaving our food supply unprotected, we need to have one agency take charge to ensure the next outbreak isn't far worse."

Under current law, the United States Department of Agriculture has the responsibility of protecting the nation's meat and poultry supply, while the FDA has oversight over fruits, vegetables, and other food products.

But Schumer said the FDA has reduced the number of produce inspections dramatically. He said that in 2005, the FDA conducted 4,573 on-site agriculture processing inspections. For 2006, they are only expected to complete 3,400, a 25 percent drop.

An FDA spokeswoman, Julie Zawisza, said Sunday that the agency "is proud of our work with our government partners and other stakeholders on the rapid response to the recent E. coli outbreak, which significantly reduced its public health risk and impact."

"As always, we are assessing ways to improve our response efforts and collaboration, as we seek to ensure the safety of all products we regulate," she said. "As part of the shared responsibility to ensure food safety, we also expect the industry to do its part and are discussing with them a comprehensive food safety plan."

Federal health officials said Friday that a Nebraska woman who died in late August was infected with E. coli after eating fresh spinach, bringing to three the number of people who have died in a nationwide outbreak of the bacteria.

Also on Friday, an Iowa company announced that it was recalling about 5,200 pounds of ground beef that is suspected of having the same E. coli strain. The government said no illnesses have been reported from consumption of the beef.

Schumer said he would push to overhaul federal oversight of the food supply in response to the E. coli outbreak. The Food Safety Act would make one new federal agency responsible for food safety monitoring.

The legislation would require food producers to code their products so that those products can be quickly traced in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak. It would also require that food processing plants have procedures in place to prevent and reduce food contamination, require regular inspection of domestic food facilities with frequency based on risk, and give the FDA recall authority.

E. coli lives in the intestines of cattle and other animals and typically is linked to contamination by fecal material. It causes an estimated 73,000 infections in the United States each year, including 61 deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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