Government didn't improve inspections after E. coli outbreak

SALINAS, Calif. -- Government regulators never acted on calls for stepped-up inspections of leafy greens after last year's deadly E. coli spinach outbreak, leaving the safety of America's salads to a patchwork of largely unenforceable rules and the industry itself, an Associated Press investigation has found.

The regulations governing farms in this central California region known as the nation's "Salad Bowl" remain much as they were when bacteria from a cattle ranch infected spinach that killed three people and sickened more than 200.

AP's review of data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that federal officials inspect companies growing and processing salad greens an average of just once every 3.9 years. Some proposals in Congress would require such inspections at least four times a year.

In California, which grows three-quarters of the nation's greens, processors created a new inspection system but with voluntary guidelines that didn't keep bagged spinach tainted with salmonella from reaching grocery shelves.

The AP review found that since last year's E. coli outbreak, California public health inspectors have yet to spot-test for bacteriological contamination at any processing plants handling leafy greens. And some farms in the fertile Salinas Valley are still vulnerable to bacteria-carrying wildlife and other dangerous conditions.

"We have strict standards for lead paint on toys, but we don't seem to take the same level of seriousness about something that we consume every day," said Darryl Howard, whose 83-year-old mother, Betty Howard, of Richland, Wash., died as a result of E. coli-related complications.

State Sen. Dean Florez, a Central Valley Democrat who sponsored three failed bills to enact mandatory regulations for leafy greens earlier this year, said momentum faded as the E. coli case dropped from the headlines and the industry lobbied hard for self-regulation.

"That legislation was held up waiting for this voluntary approach for food safety to see if it works," Florez said.