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    Weak Link in the Food Chain

    Federal agencies depend on growers to police themselves, says Douglas Powell, PhD, scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Canada's University of Guelph. For the most part, it works. Growers test their irrigation water for contamination, maintain good employee sanitation, use properly composed manure, and take other measures.

    The testing is what led the Nunes Company of Salinas, Calif., to recall Foxy brand lettuce on Oct. 9. The recall occurred before anyone got sick, and food safety experts applauded it as a good example of self-monitoring by a grower. "We're looking for the industry to be proactive for the sake of public health and consumer safety," Jack Guzewich, director of emergency coordination and response at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, tells WebMD.

    Pros and Cons of Self-Policing

    The problem with self-policing is that "with a commodity like lettuce or spinach, you're only as good as your worst grower," Powell tells WebMD. And "the industry has done a lousy job in providing verification data" in terms of which growers are following proper practices.

    Powell believes consumer standards and litigation will convince the industry to shape up without further regulation. Others are not so sure. "Asking people to do things voluntarily makes no sense," Marion Nestle, PhD, a food safety expert at New York University and author of What to Eat, tells WebMD. "The only way to do it is federal regulation. And when you have federal regulation it's been reasonably effective."

    Nestle cites the beef industry as an example of successful regulation. In 1993, hundreds fell ill and four children died after eating undercooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants. The Agriculture Department tightened safety standards, and in 1996 it introduced a system that requires identification of the vulnerable points in the production chain and monitoring of those points. The result has been a decline of nearly one-third in E. coli cases from a decade ago.

    Nestle believes the same system should be introduced for raw produce. She also believes that a single agency should be charged with all food safety, a job currently split between several different agencies. "You want standard food safety procedures introduced from farm to table," she tells WebMD.

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