CSPI Petitions FDA to Regulate Manure, Water and Sanitation on Farms

Consumer Groups Excluded from Senate Hearing on Spinach Outbreak


WASHINGTON—The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) formally called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue regulations to ensure the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables. In a petition filed with the agency today, CSPI said that inspections and mandatory standards governing manure, water and sanitation on farms could help reduce the number of food outbreaks linked to produce, such as the recent outbreak of E. coli O157:H7-contaminated spinach that sickened 200 and killed at least four.

“You can’t start at the supermarket or even the packing facility if you’re trying to ensure the safety of melons, tomatoes, spinach and other fruits and vegetables. It all starts with safe farming practices,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “It is time for FDA to institute programs to prevent what happened this fall with spinach, instead of rushing in after the fact to alert the public to avoid a hazardous food product.”

CSPI’s petition asserts that the FDA already has broad legal authority under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Public Health Service Act, and applicable case law that would allow the agency to adopt and enforce regulations governing sanitation on farms. Regulations governing the use of manure, the cleanliness of irrigation water, and ensuring workers have access to bathrooms would all help protect produce from becoming contaminated. Outbreak data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clearly shows that produce has become the leading cause of food poisoning outbreaks since 2000.

Specifically, CSPI says the use of raw manure as fertilizer should be prohibited during the growing season, and that composting practices should be monitored to ensure pathogens are destroyed. Water used for irrigation must be tested and found suitable and only potable water should be used in produce processing facilities, according to the group. Traceability is key in responding to outbreaks, and CSPI says the FDA should ensure that product packaging makes it easy to tell which farm a product came from.

CSPI’s filing comes as a lame-duck session of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee holds hearings investigating the spinach outbreak. Though FDA, state officials and several businesses are testifying, consumer groups and victims have been excluded from the committee’s deliberations despite protests to outgoing Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY).

“The government urges consumers to eat abundant amounts of fruits and vegetables,” DeWaal said. “While that is advice consumers should follow, it increases the responsibility of federal and state governments to implement programs to ensure that these foods are safe for Americans to eat.”

CSPI recently called on the state of California to exert its regulatory authority on its farms, saying that California could likely act more rapidly than the federal government, which has so many food safety agencies that it is sometimes not clear which one is in charge.

CSPI says the states’ role in the recent outbreaks should make it less likely that the lame-duck Senate will take up the so-called National Uniformity for Food Act, which would roll back more than 200 state and local food laws. Yet some expect the bill’s lead sponsor, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), might try to ram it through in the waning days of the session. It previously passed in the House.

“The Senate shouldn’t consider binding and gagging state food safety officials when they are the ones on the front lines protecting Americans from tainted food,” said CSPI senior attorney Benjamin Cohen.

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