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Chew on Food-Safety Reform

Chew on Food-Safety Reform

Monterey County Herald

Recalls of toxic or potentially toxic food products have become so routine that many of us barely pay attention unless we have just purchased some of the suspect substance.

Food-borne illness is a by-product of mass agricultural production, rapid worldwide trade and the inability of regulatory agencies to sample any significant portion of the products headed to our dinner tables.

Only last week, a batch of Salinas Valley lettuce was once again subject to a recall, this time because of salmonella detected in a sample of romaine tested in Wisconsin. Almost lost in the news coverage was the fact that most of the shipment apparently had been consumed without ill effect.

Still, the fear of contamination remains very real among consumers of a long list of food products, so the state and federal governments are examining ways to increase inspection and regulation. In some ways, closer attention by the regulators is overdue, but concern is mounting in several corners of agribusiness about the obvious possibility of counterproductive over-regulation.

Already, portions of the Salinas Valley are being stripped of natural vegetation to prevent contamination by wildlife that has not been implicated in past problems. Because of strict and largely unpublicized policies imposed by produce buyers, many growers locally and elsewhere say they have been forced to poison wildlife and destroy habitat, even riparian habitat theoretically protected by environmental regulations.

Just as consumer insistence on unblemished fruit led to overuse of pesticides, zero-tolerance rules imposed by buyers for large retailers have created unintended consequences, including virtual dead zones around some fields.

Even so, contamination continues.

In some cases, rules are being written even though the authors don’t know what actually causes the problems they are addressing.

Often, the contamination is introduced at some less regulated point along the field-to-table trail.

Now, Congress is preparing for impending hearings on the so- called Food Safety Enhancement Act, by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, which would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate farms.