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Legislators Discuss New Food Safety Options

In the wake of an E. coli outbreak that may be tied to California-grown lettuce, legislators and the produce industry are looking into ways to keep produce safe.

Although federal officials say the recent E. coli outbreak associated with Taco Bell is most likely over, it may have a lasting impact on the produce industry. Investigators say the most likely source - although still unconfirmed - is shredded lettuce that would have been contaminated before reaching the restaurants. Coupled with the E. coli outbreak in spinach earlier this year, the bacteria is causing legislators and produce industry leaders to look for ways to ensure safety in the food supply chain and restore consumer confidence.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y, is calling for more Food and Drug Administration rules and oversight to help federal investigators trace outbreaks more quickly and accurately.

"Unless we overhaul our nation's tracing and monitoring procedures, the FDA and the other agencies in charge will continue to act like a pack of blind mice," Schumer says.

In California, the Western Growers Association has proposed an industry-controlled organization to help monitor food safety. Although a Western Growers spokesman says that the plan would involve enforcement by tough state sanctions, California State Senator Dean Florez calls the plan a voluntary one and says more needs to be done.

Florez plans to propose a bill which would include tough new food safety rules. Florez says provisions of the bill will include requiring food producers to code products to help investigators trace outbreak sources and giving state ag officials the authority to recall any food products linked to an outbreak.

The Western Growers grower-shipper program would allow properly handled produce to carry a "best practices" certification label and would be funded by charging participants up to 5 cents per carton of produce.

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