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Goal of New US Produce Safety Rules: Prevent Illness Outbreaks

FILE - A shopper inspects fresh-picked melons and other summer garden vegetables are displayed for sale at a farmers market in Falls Church, Va., Aug. 8, 2015.
FILE - A shopper inspects fresh-picked melons and other summer garden vegetables are displayed for sale at a farmers market in Falls Church, Va., Aug. 8, 2015.

The U.S. government on Friday outlined new produce safety rules designed to help prevent large-scale, deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness like those linked to fresh spinach, cantaloupes, cucumbers and other foods over the last decade.

Under the rules, the Food and Drug Administration soon will have new oversight of farms that grow Americans' food. That means making sure workers are trained to wash their hands, irrigation water is monitored for harmful bacteria and animals do not leave droppings in fields.

The majority of farmers and food manufacturers already follow good safety practices, but the rules are intended to give greater focus on prevention in a system that has been largely reactive after large outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people — or 1 in 6 people in the United States — are sickened each year from foodborne diseases, and an estimated 3,000 people die.

The Obama administration has said it wants people to eat more fruits and vegetables, so it is essential to ensure produce safety.

"The rules will help better protect consumers from foodborne illness and strengthen their confidence that modern preventive practices are in place, no matter where in the world the food is produced," said Michael Taylor, the FDA deputy commissioner for foods.

The FDA also released rules Friday that will require importers to be accountable for the safety of food they bring into the U.S. market.

Taylor said both rules could help prevent illnesses such as an ongoing outbreak of salmonella linked to cucumber imported from Mexico. In that outbreak, four people have died and more than 700 people have fallen ill.

There have been many other outbreaks linked to produce in recent years. In 2006, E. coli in fresh spinach was linked to several deaths, including a 2-year-old. The CDC later issued a report saying the cause may have been contaminated irrigation water. A 2011 outbreak of listeria linked to cantaloupes killed 33 people. In a recent outbreak of cyclospora illnesses linked to imported Mexican cilantro, American investigators found toilet paper and human feces in the fields where it was grown.

The Food and Drug Administration has haggled over how to write the rules since Congress approved them in 2010, trying to find a balance between food safety and regulating farms with safety measures already in place. The rules are new territory for the agency, which has never before had such broad authority to oversee how food is grown on farms.

The FDA originally proposed the produce rules in 2013, but rewrote them last year after some farmers said they would be too burdensome. The final rules largely follow that rewrite.

The regulations are tailored to cover foods and growing methods that pose the greatest risk. They target produce such as berries, melons, leafy greens and other items usually eaten raw and more prone to contamination. A farm that produces green beans that will be cooked and canned, for example, would not be regulated. There are also exemptions for smaller farms.

The rules require farmers to test irrigation water quality, regularly train workers on the best health and hygiene practices and monitor wildlife that may intrude on growing fields, among other measures.

Compared with the original 2013 proposal, the final rule requires less stringent standards for irrigation water quality and reduces the frequency of testing, in some cases. The organic industry had expressed concerns about the rules, especially because many organic farmers use raw manure as fertilizer and try to treat irrigation water with fewer chemicals.

The FDA issued separate rules aimed at food manufacturing facilities in September. The 2010 food safety law also authorized more inspections by the FDA and gave the agency additional powers to shut down facilities.