The recent recall of 170 million eggs in 14 states and the outbreak of E. coli in fresh spinach that killed three people and sickened hundreds in 2006 have helped drive a state focus on improving food safety.
Agencies that monitor food processors in the Mid-Columbia are training with workers from across the state to be ready to react cooperatively to a food safety problem.
"Food safety has moved up in the public's consciousness," said Alan Bennett, spokesman for the FDA in Portland.
Last week, a group met in Bellevue to develop a statewide system to catch food safety problems and get products off supermarket shelves as swiftly as possible. The goal is to develop a common language and operations response to food emergencies.
The group included representatives from the state Department of Agriculture, county health departments and the FDA. All will step up when a crisis hits.
The training, paid for with a three-year, $1.5 million federal grant, has helped agencies develop a common system throughout the state to handle food safety emergencies and natural disasters that could choke off the supply of food from Washington producers.
Until now, when a food safety problem happened in the Mid-Columbia, state and county workers from the area would jump in and start working to trace where the product came from and where it had been distributed. Their efforts weren't coordinated.
The key is drawing people with the right variety of expertise together quickly.
The training uses lessons learned by the U.S. Forest Service on how to coordinate different agencies in fighting wildfires.
The idea is that no matter where in the state or for what agency they work, they will be able to jump in and help with food safety outbreaks anywhere in the state.
"If we have to respond, we're not all stepping all over each other," said Claudia Coles, with the state Department of Agriculture.
As an example, Gena Rich, who works for the state Agriculture Department in Eastern Washington, is an expert in reviewing manufacturing equipment for "sanitary design."
Rich said she makes sure all parts of a piece of equipment can be cleaned and sanitized. If there is a food safety problem at a plant near Seattle, Rich now could be called in to see if the equipment could be spreading the toxin.
The agencies do communicate now, but they haven't trained together to handle a crisis.
"We do a lot of it -- we just call it something different," Coles said. "It gets down to a common language."
* Cathy Kessinger: 509-582-1535; firstname.lastname@example.org