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Popeye to the Hill! By the time the health authorities wrap up their investigation into what led to the outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in 21 states where tainted bagged spinach sickened 114 people, the nation is likely to have a serious iron deficiency. As the investigation thumps along, grocery stores across the country have pulled bags of spinach and spinach dip off their shelves, and the nation’s restaurants have banished the iron-rich greens from their kitchens. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill pols and lobbyists are moving forward. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who co-chairs the House Food Safety Caucus and is a ranking member of the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, fired off a letter on Sept. 19 to Robert Brackett, the director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration, expressing “concerns” about the lapse in time from the beginning of the outbreak (Aug. 2) to when consumers were notified (Sept. 14). “Why did it take six weeks for FDA to become aware of this problem and what steps could be taken to shorten the time?” she wrote. As of late last week, Brackett had not responded to DeLauro’s letter. Thomas Stenzel, president and chief executive of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, was spotted on the Hill last week making the House Agriculture Committee rounds, says Donna Garren, vice president of health, safety, and regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association. Calls to Stenzel’s organization, which has spent $200,000 a year on lobbying since 1999, were not returned. Garren says the restaurant association is keeping its members abreast about new developments, though she predicts that once the investigation concludes, lawmakers will zero in on the FDA and whether it needs to do more to regulate the produce industry. Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, who works mainly with California’s state officials, says the current situation presents an opportunity to lobby. (Last week it was determined that the bad spinach came from farms in California and New Mexico.) “With the world focused on this problem, there’s a unique opportunity to ask our elected officials for some help,” says Perkins, adding that this may include requesting an increase in funds for E. coli research. Though Perkins says he doesn’t have a wish list, there’s some help that he doesn’t want. California state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter, 16th District) is interested in introducing a bill that would prohibit the use of reclaimed water in certain agricultural circumstances, specifically prohibiting its use on organic crops. Such a measure would be horrible, says Perkins, as many farmers use reclaimed water to augment their water supplies or blend it with water to make it suitable for irrigation. “To be kind to Senator Florez, it’s premature to propose legislative solutions to the problem until we know what the problem is,” says Perkins. — Joe Crea
Resurfacing Life continues to go on for Jack Abramoff’s alums. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) pleaded guilty Sept. 15 to two federal criminal charges related to the Abramoff scandal. In the same breath, Ney admitted to a “dependence on alcohol”; shortly after, he said he will be checking himself into a rehabilitation clinic. And he isn’t the only figure from l’affair d’Abramoff who’s in transition. Fresh off his July defeat in the Georgia Republican primary for lieutenant governor, Ralph Reed, Abramoff’s old business ally, has re-emerged as a blogger. In a Sept. 18 dialogue with renowned theologian and preacher Jim Wallis on the popular religious blog Beliefnet.com, Reed attempted to answer the question of what “values voters” should value the most. “The claim that religious conservatives focus on one or two issues or somehow believe that other issues lack a moral component is a straw man,” Reed wrote. “Conservative people of faith have worked on a broad agenda. . .” Reed’s spokesperson did not return calls, but Caren Browning, who handles media inquiries for BeliefNet, says the blog is a series that will continue with other religious luminaries such as Tony Campolo and Sister Helen Prejean. Browning says that David Kuo, the new Washington editor for BeliefNet, was instrumental in bringing Reed on board. Kuo’s previous position: deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. — Joe Crea

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