By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON, Aug 8 (Reuters) - The fresh produce industry in the United States is ready to finally embrace greater oversight after weathering the worst foodborne outbreak in a decade, but sweeping change is unlikely to come any time soon.
In just the latest outbreak this summer, more than 1,300 people fell ill from salmonella linked to peppers and tomatoes before the contamination source was traced to Mexico.
As the media warned the public to be careful when shopping in the produce aisle, the reports of food illnesses nationwide sparked an uproar among consumers, lawmakers and industry leaders for more oversight.
"There's no question that everyone is now on board in the produce industry with the notion that there's going to be, whether they like it or not, more government interest in their field," said Jim Prevor, industry expert and editor of PerishablePundit.com.
Produce Marketing Association spokeswoman Julia Stewart said industry's past objections to regulation stemmed from concerns "that people that don't know their business are going to be trying to tell them what to do."
Now the group has called for regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "that reflect the nature and reality of the produce industry." These regulations would focus on produce with the most risk for contamination and be specific for different commodities.
"I can tell you that the costs to our industry from these outbreaks where we have an entire industry shut down are just unacceptable," said Kathy Means, the association's vice president of government relations.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association favors a bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois that would give the FDA power to force companies to recall unsafe foods and would establish rules for ensuring food safety.
But past calls for regulations have gone unanswered, and the complexity of the produce industry, coupled with a slow economy, dampens the likelihood of quick action on new oversight.
The 2006 E. coli outbreak from Dole spinach, which killed three people, saw similar calls for regulation, but nothing much has happened since.
Part of the reason is the complexity of the supply line.
"There's so little in common between someone who's growing bananas in Honduras and someone who's growing greenhouse herbs in an urban area," Prevor said. "It's hard to imagine what it really means for the government to issue a regulation."
Today's inspections are inadequate as threats to food safety are mostly pathogens invisible to the eye. Much is still unknown about foodborne illness, such as how long it takes salmonella in a river to contaminate crops, so regulation amounts to science-based guesses, not certainties.
Some food items have a "kill step," or a practice that guarantees against illness, like the pasteurization of milk. Produce lacks such guarantees for safety.
David Acheson, FDA's assistant commissioner for food protection, told Reuters the agency was eager to take on greater oversight with the goal of "constantly reducing the likelihood that they'll be an outbreak, but you're not going to take it to zero."
He pointed to Congress as the impediment, as it has not acted on the FDA's request made last November for greater authority to require controls for high risk foods, including produce associated with illness, like tomatoes and leafy greens.
Even if the request is approved, it will still take years to implement new regulations.
Paul Roberts, author of the book "The End of Food", said it will be difficult to implement new rules with an industry driven to relentlessly reduce costs.
"The system we've built is so large, moves food so quickly and involves so many different players that it's really vulnerable to outbreaks, and finding ways to plug all the holes is a real challenge," Roberts said.
"Keep in mind that the world is asking the produce system to improve itself at a time when everything is really expensive," he said. "So sort of overlaying this entire debate is a desperate fear of anything that's going to make costs go up even more."
But in the end the consumer will pick up the tab.
"There will have to be changes made and those changes will probably involve raising costs, and the consumer is going to have to pick that up and understand that this is the cost of having safe food," Roberts said. (Editing by Russell Blinch and Marguerita Choy)