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Schumer Reveals: Loose Federal Oversight Makes Another Ecoli Outbreak All Too Likely Vegetable Processing Plants Inspected Only Once Every 10 Years

Inspections Down Outrageous 25 Percent, Largest Outbreak in Produce Ever Exposes Cracks at the FDA, Recent Ecoli Outbreak Could Have been Much Worse

Patchwork for Federal Laws Leave Gaping Holes in Food Safety Measures Monitoring of Fruits and Vegetables Years Behind Efforts to Protect Meat and Poultry and They Leave Much to be Desired

Schumer Announces New Push for Sweepin

In the wake of the worst outbreak of E. coli (Escherichia coli) O157:H7 in produce in United States history, and with news that over the weekend 5,200 pounds of E. coli contaminated beef were recalled in 10 states, including New York U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today revealed that a patchwork of federal oversight has left the nations food supply dangerously vulnerable to contamination. It took two weeks from the time state officials in Wisconsin first discovered five people who were sick with E. coli to when federal investigators arrived in Salinas Valley, California, the suspected origin of the bacterium. Schumer today said that federal efforts to monitor the food supply, track any contaminated food, and notify the public is significantly hampered because of jurisdictional tangles, a lack of staff, and a lack of funding at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency with oversight of nonmeat food products. Schumer today announced he was cosponsoring comprehensive food safety legislation that would create a new unified Food Safety Agency to protect farms and consumers.

This recent outbreak must be a wake up call to get our food safety house in order because right now its in pure disarray, Schumer said. Ensuring the safety of our produce requires immediate action because there's no excuse to allow processing plants to be left undisputed for a decade. 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 isnt far worse."

Under current law, the United States Department of Agriculture has the responsibility of protecting the nations meat and poultry supply, while the FDA has oversight over fruits, vegetables, and other food products. In response to several, major E. coli outbreaks in beef in the mid1990s, the USDA stepped up enforcement efforts, which are credited with reducing the frequency of E. coli outbreaks in meat and poultry.

Unfortunately, the FDA isnt doing nearly enough to protect fruits and vegetables from contamination and has reduced the number of produce inspections dramatically. In 2005, the FDA conducted 4,573 onsite agriculture processing inspections. For 2006, they are only expected to complete 3,400, a 25 percent drop. By contrast, the USDA conducts the same number of inspections in a matter of days. Food inspections have dropped from 50,000 in 1972 to less than 4,500 in 2005, meaning that U.S. food processors are inspected on average about once every 10 years. Federal law requires a USDA inspector to be permanently placed at every meat processing plant in the country, however, there is no such requirement of produce at the FDA.

This fractured approach has left the nations produce vulnerable to contamination. Furthermore, The FDA does not have to power to order recalls. The CDC estimates that as many as 76 million people suffer from food poisoning each year. Of those individuals, approximately 325,000 will be hospitalized and more than 5,000 will die. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to foodborne pathogens.

Schumer said that food safety monitoring, inspection and labeling functions are actually spread across 12 federal agencies and subagencies including: the U.S. Department of Agricultures Food Safety and Inspection Service which regulates meat, poultry and processed egg products; the Food and Drug Administrations Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and Center for Veterinary Medicine which regulates produce and other food products; and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which tracks foodborne illnesses.

Schumer today announced that in the wake of this outbreak, he was pushing comprehensive food safety legislation that would overhaul federal oversight of the food supply. The Food Safety Act (S. 729), authored by Senator Richard Durbin (DIL) and cosponsored by Schumer and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 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, requiring that food processing plants have procedures in place to prevent and reduce food contamination, requiring regular inspection of domestic food facilities with frequency based on risk, and give the FDA recall authority.

Schumer also announced a new push for funding for food inspectors as a response to the drop in inspections. Schumer said that the inspectors would perform unannounced inspections on food producers.