WASHINGTON (AP) – A Bush administration official criticized the idea of putting one agency in charge of food safety after the outbreak of E. coli in spinach and recalls of potentially contaminated lettuce and ground beef.

Richard Raymond, the Agriculture Department undersecretary for food safety, said the effort is unnecessary.

He was responding to a call from food-safety advocates to make a single agency ensure that all food is safe. The Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration now share that responsibility, but they don’t have the same inspection and safety authority.

The call for a unified food safety agency follows a recent outbreak of E. coli in spinach that has killed three people and sickened nearly 200 in half the states. It was the 20th such outbreak in lettuce or spinach since 1995.

Combining food safety agencies “is an unnecessary solution,” Raymond told an audience of supermarket and restaurant industry executives Wednesday.

“The USDA and the FDA have a long history of working together very well, and I think it’s been improved even in recent years,” Raymond said.

Raymond’s department has a meat and poultry safety program that includes daily inspections of processing plants. It also requires that plants do scientific reviews to find vulnerable places in the production chain and do constant monitoring of those points.

The rest of the food supply, such as spinach and other produce, falls mostly under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, which does not have the same rules or authority.

Raymond acknowledged that food safety rules can be confusing and that two agencies might have authority over a product such as pizza.

In addition to the spinach outbreak, suspected E. coli contamination also recently prompted recalls of lettuce and ground beef.

“There is no real central agency that can go to a farm and immediately start addressing the problem,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Outbreaks of food poisoning linked to fresh produce are on the rise, Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told the food industry executives. He said FDA is “considering all of the regulatory options that we would need” to respond.

On the Net:

Food and Drug Administration: http://www.fda.gov

Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov

AP-ES-10-11-06 1717EDT

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