Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration are searching fields in Colorado's Rocky Ford region for clues as to how cantaloupes grown there this summer caused at least 100 illnesses and 18 deaths. But if a new law had been in place, they might have been there before the outbreak. The sweeping food-safety law President Barack Obama signed this year will require inspectors to regularly visit such fields to root out contamination before it makes anyone sick.
It will take years before the law can remake the system. The law will create the first-ever mandatory national safety standards for produce, requiring the FDA to conduct thousands of additional inspections each year.
Much like restaurant inspections that are meant to protect diners from getting sick, the new standards will compel the FDA to police farms and facilities where spinach, lettuce and other crops are grown, washed and packed.
A spate of outbreaks from leafy vegetables and other produce has refocused attention on the law. Besides the cantaloupes in Colorado tainted with listeria, sprouts in Idaho contaminated with salmonella were linked to illness in five states in recent months. Strawberries tainted with E. coli recently killed a person in Oregon and sickened nine or more.
Under the current FDA food-inspection system, facilities are inspected fitfully—if at all. In fiscal 2010, the FDA inspected about 15% of U.S. food production facilities, about 0.1% of foreign import facilities and essentially no farms. Farms such as Jensen Farms, which grew the cantaloupes linked to the deadly outbreak of listeria, don't get inspected unless contamination is suspected.
Now, the FDA is writing a set of rules that will require farms and food facilities to identify hazards over the next two years, with the goal of preventing disease outbreaks in the first place. The rules will be based on scientific research and the outcomes of investigations, the FDA says. For example, now that the agency has learned that listeria can appear in fruit, it is expected to craft a rule requiring farms to minimize the risk of that occurring.
Food processors, farms and warehouses will have to take steps to prevent contamination and keep records of what they do. FDA inspectors will then verify whether they have complied.
The rules won't become mandatory at some sites until 2013. But in the meantime, the FDA might end up cutting the number of inspectors it assigns such tasks as a result of federal belt-tightening to reduce annual deficits.
A budget bill that passed the House calls for an FDA food-program outlay of $752 million in 2012. That's $203 million less than the FDA has asked for, and about $84 million less than the agency currently spends.
Food-safety advocates predict that could mean cutting 200 or so inspectors of the approximately 1,100 currently devoted to food programs. The FDA said such numbers haven't been determined.
"Without a doubt, the most expensive part of our operations is for inspections," said Donald Kraemer, acting deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "We intend to do some directed inspection of farms. But probably with any level of funding that's realistic, FDA won't get to every farm every year."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) said no more money was needed for food safety until agencies like the FDA and Department of Agriculture, responsible for meat inspections, better coordinate with each other. "What we lack is a cogent plan for food safety, and one agency with responsibility," said Mr. Coburn, who tried to kill the food-safety legislation, which passed the Senate 73-25. "Are we actually going to make food any safer with this law? The answer is no."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 3,000 Americans die yearly from food poisoning and 48 million are sickened. Some food-safety experts say such outbreaks are unlikely to disappear soon, without cleanliness standards and inspections to enforce them.
An FDA official said that the agency might begin to accredit food inspectors, sometimes paid by industry, to supplement its inspections of imported food, including produce. The food industry has largely supported the food-safety law.
The CDC has been working with states to speed outbreak investigations, particularly for listeria, because it's deadly and difficult to investigate, said Robert Tauxe, a food borne-diseases expert at the CDC.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment detected a sharp uptick in cases of listeriosis in late August, and on Sept. 9, officials were warning the public not to eat cantaloupe. "That's extraordinarily fast—for listeria, it's incredible," said Dr. Tauxe.
Public-health workers called families of patients the same day reports of their illnesses came in, and went through 15-page questionnaires as quickly as they could, said Alicia Cronquist, an epidemiologist involved in the investigation. It took time: Most of the patients were elderly and very ill, she said. But the questionnaires helped health officials quickly zero in on cantaloupe as the source since all had eaten some.