Inspect fresh produce

Even with the wake-up call of last year's E. coli outbreak, Americans still have no real assurance that the produce they buy at the supermarket is safe.

A recent review by the Associated Press found that government regulators ignored calls for more inspections of leafy greens after people in 23 states were sickened by tainted spinach last year. During that outbreak, more than 200 people in 23 states were poisoned by E. coli. Three died and 76 others were hospitalized, some with kidney failure.

Even with the large number of people affected, tracing the source of the outbreak was difficult. Weeks passed before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning not to eat fresh spinach. Finally, scientists in New Mexico finally were able to isolate E. coli from an opened bag of spinach from which a patient had eaten before becoming ill. Health officials managed to "fingerprint" the DNA of the E. coli and implicate it as the culprit, tracing the spinach to a producer in Salinas, Cal.

Predictably, this outbreak sparked calls for more oversight by the government and a better inspection system. The best way to prevent another outbreak would be to discover the tainted produce before it ever goes to market.

But the AP survey found that regulations governing farms in the central California region known as the nation's "salad bowl" remain much the same as they were at the time of last year's outbreak. California producers created their own revised inspection system, but it has only voluntary guidelines and proved ineffective in catching another batch of tainted spinach from reaching grocery shelves last month.

The AP found that federal officials inspect companies growing and processing salad greens an average of only once every 3.9 years. California public inspectors don't spot test for bacteriological contamination at any processing plants handling greens. Bills were introduced in the California Legislature to enact mandatory regulations for leafy greens, but industry lobbyists lobbied suc- cessfully for self-regulation.

Meanwhile, farms remain vulnerable to bacteria-carrying wildlife and runoff from cattle and other domestic livestock operations. And it takes only a small parcel of land to produce enough greens to poison hundreds of people.

Americans now are in an uproar over recalls of toys from China coated with lead paint. While that represents a real threat, so do the innocent-looking bags of lettuce and spinach in the nation's produce section. And we can't blame the Chinese for that.

It is ironic that this threat remains in the midst of a so-called obesity epidemic in which consumers, especially children, are being urged to eat more leafy greens and fresh vegetables. And while most of us reasonably assumed something had been done to prevent another deadly outbreak, almost nothing has changed.

Both the federal government and the state of California need to stiffen regulations and increase inspections. And lettuce producers, whose livelihood is on the line, ought to be the first in line demanding a better system.

Despite last year's deadly outbreak resulting from tainted spinach, inspections have not increased.