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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 17, 2006

18 Days After Outbreak, E. coli Source Still A Mystery, Schumer Demands FDA Institute Produce Tracking Immediately

After Hundreds Were Sickened, FDA Wasted Precious Time in a Wild Goose-Chase for Green Onions

The Monitoring of Fruits and Vegetables is Years Behind Efforts to Protect Meat and Poultry¬ – Tracing Has Reduced E.Coli in Meat and Must be Done Immediately for Produce

To Improve the Accuracy and Speed of Tracing Contaminated Produce, Schumer Calls for Congress to Pass Sweeping

With the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still unsure of the source of an E.coli outbreak eighteen days after it sickened hundreds of New Yorkers and its investigation muddled by confusion, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer called for the FDA to immediately institute produce tracing measures. After initially blaming the outbreak on contaminated green onions at local Taco Bells, a week later the FDA rescinded its conclusion and turned its attention toward investigating the restaurant’s shredded lettuce even though it tested negative for E.coli. During the eighteen-day investigation, it has become increasingly clear that FDA’s efforts to track contaminated food produce were not working because there wasn’t a comprehensive system in place. With the public and FDA still in the dark over the exact source of the E.coli contamination, today, Senator Schumer called for the FDA to immediately begin tracking produce.

“Eighteen days after an E.coli outbreak sickened hundreds of New Yorkers and pulled the rug out from under consumer’s confidence in our nation’s vegetables, the FDA still cannot give us a definite answer on the cause for the outbreak,” said Senator Schumer. “Unless we overhaul our nation’s tracing and monitoring procedures, the FDA and the other agencies in charge will continue to act like a pack of blind mice who are constantly bumping into each other.”

On December 6, 6 days after taco bell officials learned that people had gotten since with a terrible strain of e. coli the FDA announced that the culprit behind the contamination at local Taco Bells was green onions after the vegetable tested positive for E.coli. The public was warned and FDA investigators shifted their focus to finding the origin of the contaminated green onions. But on December 12th, the FDA rescinded it’s conclusion that the green onions were contaminated and briefly considered the fact that it may have been white onions since they had mislabeled a bag (of white onions, labeled them green) that tested positive for e.coli. Within a day, investigators discovered that though the white onions did indeed test positive for e. coli it was not the strain that sickened people. December 13th officials announced that it was turning its attention to shredded lettuce served at Taco Bells. Adding more confusion to the investigation is that the shredded lettuce has tested negative for E.coli. Despite the negative results, investigators have instead relied on the unscientific methods of comparing what stricken New Yorkers ate and ruling out meats and cheeses because they are either cooked or pasteurized before arriving at Taco Bells. Today, eighteen days after the outbreak, there is still no definitive answer on what food product caused the outbreak. And, if it was lettuce, where that lettuce originated.

The FDA’s inability to quickly and precisely locate the contaminated food at Taco Bells comes only two months after the nation’s largest E.coli outbreak which sickened 206 people and killed 3 people across 26 states and Canada. Mirroring the same problems associated with the current Taco Bell investigation, it took federal investigators weeks before they could locate the contaminated spinach in California’s Salinas Valley Under current law, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the responsibility of protecting the nation’s meat and poultry supply, while the FDA oversees fruits, vegetables, and other food products. In response to several major E. coli outbreaks in beef in the mid-1990’s, the USDA stepped up enforcement efforts, which are credited with reducing the frequency of E. coli outbreaks in meat and poultry.

Unfortunately, FDA doesn’t have a system in place to trace produce leading to weeks between an outbreak and a conclusion of what exactly happened. In an effort to protect the food supply from yet another e. coli disaster today Senator Schumer called on the Food an Drug Administration to immediately institute a tracking system. Schumer, wrote a letter to FDA Administrator Von Eschenbach to make the changes as quickly as possible.

Schumer also announced his intention to reintroduce comprehensive food safety legislation that would overhaul federal oversight of the food supply at the start of the next Congress in January. The Food Safety Act (S. 729), authored by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and co-sponsored by Schumer would:

Make one new federal agency responsible for food safety monitoring. The legislation would give the agency recall authority, require food processing plants to implement procedures to prevent and reduce food contamination, require regular inspection of domestic food facilities with frequency based on risk, and prioritize federal food safety efforts and deployment of resources to achieve the greatest possible benefit in reducing food-borne illness.

Establish requirements for a national system for tracing food and food producing animals from point of origin to retail sale.

Establish new, regular inspection protocols for vegetable processing plants.

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