By Naveed Mansoori and Alia Wilson

Last fall, an E. coli outbreak traced back to a San Benito County farm sickened 350 people and took the lives of three, tainting the image of food safety in the United States.

Almost six months later, politicians and farmers alike are still searching for answers.

Santa Cruz’s House Representative Sam Farr serves as head of the Agriculture and FDA [Food and Drug Administration] Appropriations Subcommittee, and questioned FDA representatives about their response to the outbreak. He expressed dismay at their refusal to provide answers.

“What bothered me was that [Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, FDA commissioner] was not able to respond,” Rep. Farr said, referring to a February meeting to discuss the FDA’s 2008 fiscal budget. “The report on this incident was due. The warning was put out Sept. 14…I have no problem with them taking time, but this is too much time.”

Rep. Farr introduced the Spinach Research and Recovery Act on Feb. 8, which will allocate $26 million for food safety research.

“The question now is what caused it,” Farr said. “They know it’s E. coli…[but] how did it get from the animals to the spinach? They know what ranch it was, but they still don’t know how it got there.”

In a press conference regarding the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2008 budget request, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johannes said that the USDA has requested $2.4 billion for research to “increase detection and response capabilities.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has proposed the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement to require the leafy green industry to adhere to a set of “Best Practices” to ensure food safety. The exact meaning of “Best Practices” has yet to be defined.

Alexa Delwhiche, a researcher for the United Farm Workers (UFW), said that the UFW wants to see the farmers themselves represented in the agreement.

“If there is a major [E. coli] outbreak, our workers are significantly impacted,” Delwiche said. “The marketing agreement does little to establish standards and regulations. Any option proposed on the federal level or with this marketing agreement can’t leave out workers to represent.”

Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for the CDFA, said that the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement is still a work in progress.

“There is still work to be done,” Lyle said. “We’re hoping that inspections [will be] done in the spring with respect to the marketing agreement. There is a board that is in place, and the process is moving forward.”

Rayne Thomas, director of national affairs on international trade and plant health at the California Farm Bureau Federation, said that the E. coli outbreak has greatly affected the market and rebuilding consumer confidence is a necessity.

“It’s affected us greatly and our priority is reinstating to consumers that we do care about health,” Thomas said. “This outbreak has caused consumers to question not only [what’s in] spinach, but in all these greens. We need to rebuild their confidence.”