NEWS

FDA Leafy Greens Inspection Lax, Lawmakers Find

By Joseph Straw

Federal regulators have failed to meet their own standards for inspection of facilities that process fresh spinach, which can carry the deadly O157:H7 strain of E. Coli, and they have further failed to take “meaningful” enforcement action against violators.

Those are the findings of an investigation by Democratic congressional staff for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspected processing facilities an average of once every 2.4 years, compared with the agency’s stated goal that 95 percent of “high risk” facilities be inspected annually, according to the report.

Despite finding “objectionable” conditions at 47 percent of facilities, the FDA referred none internally for enforcement action, including 38 cases of repeat violations, according to the report.

The deadliest recent O157:H7 outbreak killed three people in 2006 and sickened at least 100 more. It was blamed on spinach fouled in the field by fecal matter, either from animals or workers denied access to toilet facilities.  

The FDA is not responsible for farm inspections. However, investigators found that Natural Selection Food LLC, which was one of the companies marketing the spinach involved in the 2006 incident, was among the companies whose facilities showed problems when inspected by the FDA before 2006 . The FDA did not mandate corrective action prior to the outbreak.

FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings told The Washington Post that her agency awaits congressional authorization for broader inspection, while the investigators suggested inadequate agency funding may be partly to blame.

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