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Heads Up — Political Posturing
On Spinach Begins

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 11, 2006

On October 11, 2006, at 9:30 AM Pacific time, California State Senator Dean Florez begins holding hearings:

SACRAMENTO — With three confirmed dead and nearly two hundred sickened by the recent E. coli outbreak from fresh California spinach, and lettuce from the same region now facing recall due to contaminated irrigation water, Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, will lead a hearing of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee into vulnerabilities to the food supply exposed by the crisis and the role of various agencies in protecting the state and nation’s food supply from accidental contamination or attack.

“I’m going to attempt to do what the FDA has been admonishing California lettuce and other leafy green producers to do — start taking these outbreaks seriously, get to the bottom of the situation, begin talking about potential sources of contamination and try to take them off the table,” Florez said. “I agree with the FDA that we don’t necessarily need to know the exact point of contamination before we take action to limit outbreaks. It’s time we pulled the cover off this whole situation and start getting very, very serious. It’s no longer a Salinas Valley backstory; we need to bring it front and center.”

Once bagged spinach had been identified as the source of the E. coli outbreak, early speculation revealed that improper bag storage, sanitary conditions in the fields, hygiene habits of workers, or the use of reclaimed water to irrigate crops all could have caused E. coli contamination of spinach.

While some, including the region’s representative in Congress, defended the practice of using reclaimed water on crops for human consumption, Sunday’s recall of 8,500 cartons of lettuce due to the detection of potentially deadly E. coli in irrigation water has led to a renewed focus on the issue. Even the USDA has reported that treated water may develop enough harmful bacteria as it travels through miles of pipes from the point of testing to its point of intended use that it’s no longer fit for irrigation purposes.

Last week, the FBI executed search warrants at two Salinas Valley produce companies, looking for quality assurance documents and possible violations of federal environmental laws. Investigators also found E. coli in cattle manure in two pastures adjacent to two spinach fields in the vicinity of the source of E. coli outbreak, intensifying concerns about crop contamination through dairy runoff.

Wednesday’s hearing, “Unraveling the E. coli Outbreak: Are State Emergency Response Systems Prepared for Outbreaks of Food-borne Illnesses?,” will be held at 9:30 a.m. in Room 3191 of the California State Capitol. Panelists from the USDA, California Department of Health Services, agriculture and water industries, and concerned scientists will testify on their various roles in preventing and responding to future food-borne disease outbreaks. Florez will use the findings of the hearing to help develop a package of legislation, the California Produce Safety Action Plan, to protect against identified threats to the food supply.

The first two speakers are a representive of a left wing special interest group and an attorney who represents victims of foodborne illness outbreaks, including several people suing Dole and Natural Selection Foods.

The state senator will speak, the two advocates will speak and the TV reports and the wire service stories will be filed with news coming out about how horrible the industry is. Some reporters will stick around until later in the day when produce industry representatives will speak, and some will file revised stories or additional stories, but the impact will be gone.

Heads up; it is probably the first of many such hearings.

PS Maybe I’m not the only one who reviewed the schedule and thought the hearings weren’t designed to improve the situation. As we were about to publish we received the following letter which was sent from the State Senator to the FDA after the FDA declined to participate:

October 10, 2006

Dear Dr. Acheson,

I find it inexcusable that the FDA has decided not to send any representative to testify at the California State Senate Committee on Governmental Organization’s hearing on the state’s emergency response to food-borne illnesses which is schedule for tomorrow, Wednesday, October 11, 2006. The timing of your decision, on the eve of the hearing, is highly suspicious to say the least and does not speak well about your agency’s openness or cooperation with state officials. Such a last minute cancellation is open to various interpretations.

The Senate Committee on Governmental Organization is the lead legislative body with oversight on issues related to emergency services. Many questions about the state’s preparedness and response to food-borne emergencies have been raised as a result of the recent outbreak of E. coli associated with Salinas Valley grown spinach.

The fact that the FDA cannot send anyone to help policymakers sort through the complex questions raised by the current spinach outbreak sends a very disturbing message to the entire state Senate and to all Californians. As a result, I will begin the process of exploring all the means available to the Senate and the State of California in order to compel an open and public dialogue with your agency.

I would therefore ask that you reconsider this unprecedented and quite offensive last minute cancellation and send a representative to the proposed hearing. I assure you, the issues and questions that we are prepared to discuss at the hearing will not simply go away.

Silence on the part of the FDA is troubling to say the least, but it will not deter my attempt to have an open and public discussion on government’s role and responsibility with respect to food-borne illness outbreaks at tomorrow’s hearing or any other future hearing that we may have to schedule in order to compel your agency’s testimony.

I look forward to your cooperation.

Sincerely,

DEAN FLOREZ

Senator, Sixteenth District
State of California

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