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Published: Friday, 3/16/2007

Produce rules sliced thin

THE federal Food and Drug Administration has laid out new rules that are supposed to ensure the safety of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, but with one major caveat for the public: They're voluntary; the food industry isn't required to follow them.

It took the FDA six years to come up with "guidelines" to minimize food-borne disease rather than mandatory standards industry would be obligated to abide by, indicative of the weak regard for public safety held by the Bush Administration.

The guidelines are a flaccid response to widely publicized - and deadly - incidents of food poisoning around the country caused by E. coli in salad greens like lettuce and spinach and salmonella in fresh tomatoes.

The FDA's argument that mandatory measures would be too costly for industry is unpersuasive, inasmuch as tougher safety standards are being implemented in California by Western Growers, a trade group that markets about half the fresh produce sold in the United States and most of what comes from the Golden State.

The growers' standards involve worker sanitation, water quality, and pest control. They also will be voluntary, but with a major difference: Growers who accept inspection and verification under the rules agree to be bound by them.

To its credit, the produce industry, fearing more costly recalls, illness, and death, has cried out for government regulation. But the FDA says it lacks the resources to enforce mandated standards.

As we pointed out in December in the midst of a pathogen outbreak involving lettuce used by Taco Bell, the FDA budget for food safety regulation has been cut severely over the past six years with the administration's acquiescence.

The public has a right to expect that fresh produce won't cause disease, but we suspect it will take more deadly incidents before the administration finally agrees to regulations with teeth in them.

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