The contaminated spinach that’s sickening consumers is emboldening lawmakers who want to strengthen federal defenses against future outbreaks of food-borne illness. With at least one death and 130 sick patients attributed to California spinach tainted by E. coli, the moment seems ripe for action. That could mean more money for research, more muscle for regulators and reformed oversight of the nation’s food supply says Knight-Ridder.

By the numbers, food safety regulation is already big business.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for fruits and vegetables, so it is investigating the contaminated spinach traced to the Salinas Valley. It’s familiar territory: Last month, citing the
"recurring outbreaks of E. coli" that have included at least 20 episodes since 1995 linked to spinach or lettuce, the FDA unveiled its "Lettuce Safety Initiative." It includes visits by FDA officials to farms, cooling and packing facilities.

The agency, however, lacks the power to recall tainted produce, nor do the different federal agencies all follow the same rules. The Agriculture Department, for instance, inspects canning facilities daily if the plant produces canned beans with meat or chicken. If the canned beans lack meat or chicken, the FDA will inspect the plant between a year and up to every five years.

Overall, 76 million U.S. residents become sick annually from food-borne illness, more than 325,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 people die. With so many problems, some lawmakers have
previously tried to reinforce existing food safety efforts.

But when congressional negotiators met to craft a final spending bill, according to sources familiar with the sessions, the proposed UC-Davis food safety center lacked the support of Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., a conservative member of the House GOP leadership. The money was dropped.

The first opportunity for reform or reinforcements for federal food safety efforts will come in the Agriculture Department and FDA funding bill for fiscal 2007. The House is proposing to spend $1.5 billion for the FDA next year, more than last year but slightly less than President Bush had requested. The Senate has not yet approved its version.

The least likely reform would be a wholesale reorganization of the food safety regulatory agencies, even though that is what some believe is most necessary.

New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and a small band of House liberals including Democrats George Miller from California and Jim McDermott from Washington have authored legislation to create a unified Food Safety Administration. It would combine the work of now-disparate agencies; but, with only nine co-sponsors in the House, it is stalled. 

The FDA currently labors under an acting commissioner, as Bush’s latest nominee has yet to win Senate confirmation. Various political controversies have kept the permanent FDA position vacant for more than half of Bush’s time in office.