NRDC Calls On EPA to Reduce Bacteria at Farms and U.S. Senate to Block Bill That Would Preempt Food Safety Laws

WASHINGTON (September 26, 2006) -- The nationwide outbreak of E.coli bacteria in spinach is spotlighting the need for Congress and federal agencies to quickly find better ways to protect America's food supply and ensure public health and safety.

Today, in a visit to the Environmental Protection Agency, representatives from three national organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), called on the agency to require livestock and poultry factory farms to reduce bacterial pollution from animal wastes.

While the source of the current E.coli outbreak has not been precisely determined, animal waste is among the suspected causes. "Factory farms are a major source of E.coli contamination, but the EPA is not doing enough to protect our food or water supplies," said Melanie Shepherdson, an NRDC attorney. "We have the technology to significantly reduce the bacteria, viruses and parasites in factory farm animal waste. We shouldn't have to worry about eating contaminated vegetables or drinking water."

But Congress appears to be heading in the wrong direction of food safety and could actually make matters worse. The House has passed -- and now the Senate is considering -- a bill that would seriously undermine more than 200 state laws that protect consumers every day from contaminated foods because they impose quality standards more stringent than federal requirements.

The deceptively named "Uniformity for Food Act" (S. 3128) would strip states of the authority to protect their citizens -- and put that power back in the hands of the federal government, which has repeatedly failed to act decisively to fatal outbreaks of food contamination.

In the case of the E. coli contamination of spinach, state authorities notified the Food and Drug Administration on August 23 that individuals had become ill; but it took the FDA until September 14 to warn the public. Even now, more than a month after learning of the E. coli poisoning, FDA has yet to take any enforcement action.

If the "Uniformity for Food Act" becomes law, the next time an E. coli outbreak occurs, state officials would be powerless to act until they notified the FDA and waited for the agency to take enforcement actions.

"Under this bill, state authorities may have to wait for days or weeks before acting to protect their citizens," said Erik Olson, NRDC's advocacy director. "The uncertainty and delays introduced by this bill could cause consumers to be poisoned even after state authorities learn about the dangers. This bill is hazardous to public health."

In the case of E.coli from farm animal waste, consumers should be mindful of a June 30 report by California's Central Coast Water Board, which found the deadly bacteria in five waterways in the Salinas watershed in Monterey County, the site of the tainted spinach fields. Livestock are common carriers of E.coli. (To download the Central Coast Water Board report, click www.waterboards.ca.gov/rwqcb3/TMDL/documents/SalRivFecColPrelimProjRptJuly06.pdf 12 MB pdf.)

A proposed EPA rule, unveiled in June, fails to require factory farms to adopt technologies that would reduce E.coli and other dangerous pathogens in animal waste, according to Shepherdson. There are technologies available today that can reduce pathogens by as much as 99 percent, she said. EPA issued that rule in response to a February 2005 U.S. Court of Appeals decision that ordered the agency to toughen the standards. The court ruling resulted from a lawsuit filed by NRDC, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. (For more information, click here).

Factory farms now dominate animal production across the country. In 2001, 5 percent of U.S. farms accounted for 54 percent of the nation's beef and dairy cattle, hogs, and poultry, according to the Department of Agriculture. These factory farms generate some 500 million tons of manure annually, and routinely over-apply the liquid waste on land. It then runs off fields into nearby streams or seeps into underground water supplies, polluting the water with viruses, bacteria, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and excessive nutrients. The EPA estimates that pathogens, such as E. coli, are responsible for 35 percent of the nation's impaired river and stream miles, and factory farms are common pathogen sources.