- WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The biggest food safety risk for fresh fruits and
vegetables as they are grown, picked or processed comes from human and
animal waste, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Friday. In the
Clinton administration's latest action to beef up food safety, the FDA
issued a set of draft guidelines for U.S. and foreign growers to carefully
monitor worker hygiene, water quality, manure management and transportation.
U.S. health officials have documented a soaring number of foodborne illnesses
linked to raspberries, alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupes, mesclun and other
produce. The 34-page draft guidelines urged growers to give workers lessons
on basic hygiene such as using soap to wash their hands, covering lesions
or wounds that could come into contact with produce, and using only clean
toilets. The FDA guidelines identified ``the major source of contamination''
for fresh produce as human or animal feces. ``We think just proper controls
and proper attention to detail would make a big difference in food safety,''
said Lou Carson, the interim director of the Food Safety Initiative launched
last autumn by President Clinton. ``It is our belief that these guidelines
would not be very costly.''
- But grower groups disagreed with the
FDA's assessment that human and animal feces are the biggest risk of contamination
as produce is grown, picked and packaged. ``Most foodborne disease outbreaks
that happen further down the distribution line are due to fecal contamination
because people preparing food are not properly washing their hands,'' said
Stacey Zawal, an official with United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.
``That is not necessarily true for growers and packers.''
- Some U.S. grower organizations have expressed
concern that the agency is interfering with on-farm practices. Others object
to the FDA's proposal to have growers formally document the picking, handling
and transportation of produce so that health officials could quickly recall
foods if necessary. The FDA recommendations are due to be finalized by
the FDA later this year for use by U.S. and foreign growers. The matter
of encouraging foreign growers to adopt the guidelines remains somewhat
tricky but FDA officials say it is vital because of the huge amount of
- That plan has been criticized by the
U.S. produce industry as likely to spark retaliation from trading partners.
The United States imported some $1.9 billion worth of fresh produce last
year at the same time the industry exported $3 billion in produce to other
- ``If we're going to make any credible
effort in reducing microbial contamination of foods, we're going to have
to address food imports as well as those domestically grown,'' Carson said
in an interview.
- More than 9,000 Americans die each year
from foodborne disease and some scientists believe fresh produce is the
biggest carrier of contamination. Disinfectants, sanitizers, ionizing treatments
and ultraviolet radiation may be useful for some produce. For example,
orange growers in California are already rinsing crates with sanitizing
agents before fruit is shipped.
- Consumer groups criticized the FDA guidelines
as of little use because they will not carry the force of law. But stricter
regulations could evolve as researchers find new technology or methods
to kill harmful bacteria or parasites, the FDA said. ``As we learn more
about pathogens and fresh produce, and where we can establish controls
and where they are appropriate, I believe the agency would act appropriately,''
Carson said. The Clinton administration has urged Congress to increase
the FDA's budget so agency inspectors can go to foreign countries and halt
imports of unsafe fruits and vegetables. Currently, fewer than 2 percent
of shipments of imported produce are inspected by the FDA. The FDA said
it would schedule two public meetings in late May on its draft guidelines