(Dec. 27) Five Senate Democrats have asked the leaders of the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to convene a foodborne illness task force.

A Dec. 12 letter asks Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, FDA Commissioner Andrew Von Eschenbach and CDC Director Julie Gerberding to create the task force and develop recommendations on how to address outbreaks associated with fresh produce.

The letter, signed by Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., Robert Menendez, D-N.J. and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., referenced the E. coli-linked foodborne illness outbreak in early December that sickened at least 169 people in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, South Carolina and Utah.

“There is strong evidence that this outbreak can be traced to produce used in restaurants,” the letter said.

The letter also cited the Hepatitis A outbreak linked to green onions from a Chi-Chi’s restaurant in 2003 and this year’s earlier E. coli-tainted spinach illness outbreak that killed three people and sickened more than 200.

“While the FDA has issued voluntary food safety guidance to the produce industry over the years, these recent outbreaks indicate that this voluntary approach may be insufficient to protect the public,” the letter said.

One aide to Sen. Lautenberg, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the lawmaker believes a targeted approach is wise.

“Our feeling is we don’t need a new agency, we need a task force to specifically look at what happened in terms of E. coli,” he said.

Nicol Andrews, deputy director of communications for the USDA, said she couldn’t characterize Sec. Johanns’ reaction to the call for a task force.

However, she said that the USDA works with FDA and CDC already in communicating about food safety issues. Over time, the total number of foodborne illnesses has declined, she said.

A spokesman for the FDA could not be reached for comment Dec. 20.

There is a tremendous amount of interest in Congress to address food safety, and probably early in the next year, said Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

“We have been meeting regularly on the Hill, and they are looking at ways to address this through the legislative process,” he said.