A rising number of produce-related illnesses, including a hepatitis A outbreak last month at a Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant, suggests problems with the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate growers, an advocacy group says.

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There were 76 food-borne illness outbreaks stemming from produce in 2000, causing a total of 3,981 illnesses, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group. In 1997, there were just 29 similar outbreaks with 2,449 illnesses.

“I think, clearly, FDA, given its current budget and focus on bioterrorism over the last few years, has really been unable to reverse this,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the center. “Fruits and vegetables are a growing cause of food poisoning outbreaks.”

Produce associations, however, said the rising number of produce-related outbreaks is misleading, because many contamination cases can stem from restaurant workers, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in Sunday’s editions.

The FDA argues the rise also reflects a growing demand for fresh produce and improved detection of problems.

Contaminated produce is just part of the country’s food-borne disease problem, which causes approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Pennsylvania, health officials reported that 615 hepatitis A cases, including three deaths, were linked to contaminated green onions grown in Mexico and served at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The CDC also blamed green onions, or scallions, from Mexico for smaller outbreaks in Tennessee and Georgia.

The increase in produce-related outbreaks is particularly troubling because the FDA found fewer contamination problems with domestic produce, said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.

Water used on farms in some other countries isn’t as clean as on U.S. farms, Foreman said.

But the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas says FDA regulation of foreign farms is already tougher than domestic growers because they are nine times as likely to be inspected.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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