FDA Tabs 24-48 Hour Goal to Narrow E. coli Probe

NEWARK, Del. -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration pledged that within 24 to 48 hours, it will narrow the scope of its investigation into the source of the current E. coli outbreak to a specific growing region, and find a mechanism to get spinach from other areas of the country back on the market.

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association here, revealed the news via an open letter to the trade group's members on PMA's Web site Wednesday.
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"I am writing to you from California, where yesterday PMA participated in a meeting with industry, government, and academic experts to begin discussions on steps to be taken to facilitate the investigation into causes of the E. coli outbreak, to restore public confidence, and to begin the process of rebuilding the spinach industry," wrote Silbermann.

"In our ongoing communication with FDA, we have persistently asked the agency to narrow its scope and 'release' the rest of the industry so it can get back in business. PMA commends FDA for taking this action."

Silbermann went on to discuss how federal and state investigators "are now looking at farming practices at nine farms in or near the Salinas Valley after packaging codes led them to deduce the nationwide E. coli outbreak could have come came from spinach harvested there a few weeks ago."

Quoting Dr. David Acheson of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Silberman's update said, "The goal in the next 24-48 hours is to try to limit this down to a specific growing region in California and then try to find a mechanism, working with industry, to see if we can get spinach from other areas of the country that are clearly not implicated in the outbreak back on the market in a safe way."

The challenges associated with the ongoing investigation include the complexity of the distribution system; the difficulty investigators and the industry have tracing products; and the need for the industry to develop more effective communications systems.

The agencies suggested that industry propose a plan for assuring public safety; and until such a plan is ready, that the current health advisory remains in place. FDA also encouraged the spinach growing and distribution industry to review the actions taken by other food sectors in responding to similar situations. These sectors included meat, eggs, and other produce items impacted by previous outbreaks, it said.

To provide its members with the most up-to-date information, PMA said that it will host a conference call, in collaboration with Western Growers Association and the Alliance for Food and Farming, on Friday, Sept. 22 from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., EST.

Silbermann said the information-sharing meeting will give participants an opportunity to hear the latest information on the investigation and discuss association activities to date; gain insights on the impact this outbreak has had on the spinach and related categories; discuss the realities of the current situation; take the first steps toward consumer and industry recovery and; ensure future efforts are more efficiently and effectively coordinated.
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