Even as government health experts urge Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, federal rules for protecting consumers from such hazards as the current E. coli outbreak from contaminated spinach are weaker than for meat and poultry.

And as food-borne illnesses attributed to produce appear to be rising, budget squeezes have federal regulators retreating rather than attacking. Compliance with safety guidelines on the handling of produce is voluntary and federal inspectors conduct fewer and fewer checkups, according to government documents and LA Times interviews with consumer groups and a top former Food and Drug Administration official. 

For example, since the FDA hired inspectors in the wake of bioterrorism concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has been steadily thinning their ranks. The number of FDA staff in field offices around the country shrank from 2,217 in 2003 to 1,962 currently, budget documents indicate.