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E. coli outbreak in strawberries sparks concerns about Tester amendment

by Joan Murphy | August 10, 2011

WASHINGTON — Oregon strawberries sold at roadside stands and tied to a cluster of E. coli O157:H7 cases are raising questions about a decision by Congress to exempt small producers from federal food-safety regulations.

Oregon health investigators traced fresh strawberries to Jaquith Strawberry Farm in Newberg, OR, in the first E. coli outbreak tied to strawberries. At least 10 people became ill last month and one person has died, the Oregon Health Authority said Aug. 10.

Residents of Washington, Clatsop and Multnomah counties have developed E. coli infection, and six other people in northwestern Oregon appear to be part of the outbreak.

Jaquith finished its strawberry season in late July, and its strawberries are no longer on the market. But health officials are concerned that contaminated strawberries picked up at farmers markets and roadside stands may have been frozen or used in uncooked jam.

The 35-acre farm sold its strawberries to buyers who then resold them at roadside stands, farm stands and farmers’ markets, Oregon health officials said.

The latest outbreak tied to a small, direct-marketing farm dredges up last year’s long-fought battle over the so-called Tester amendment, a provision adopted in the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that created an exemption for small producers.

Penned by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), the amendment exempts farmers who sell a majority of their product directly to consumers, restaurants or retailers within the same state, or within 400 miles, and make less than $500,000 annually.

The Produce Marketing Association “has always asserted that foodborne illness outbreaks are not company-size-dependant,” Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs at PMA, told The Produce News. “We supported FSMA until the Tester amendment was included, and we opposed it after that. As for implications on Tester, that is part of the law now. Only Congress can change that. What will be interesting is how the FDA interprets that and what regulations it proposes to implement it.”

The question of whether the Tester amendment would apply in this case is not clear, said Tony Corbo, food lobbyist at the consumer group Food & Water Watch.

Since the farm was repackaging its strawberries, it may not fall under the exemption, said Mr. Corbo, whose group supported the Tester language.

It also appears that the farmer did not do anything wrong, particularly if health authorities continue to find that deer in the field caused the outbreak, Mr. Corbo added.