WASHINGTON - Families victimized by tainted spinach and peanut butter put a human face on recent high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness yesterday, urging lawmakers to strengthen federal oversight of the nation's food supply.

"I can't protect them from spinach - only you guys can," said Michael Armstrong, as he and his wife, Elizabeth, cradled daughters Ashley, 2, and Isabella, 5.

The two girls fell ill - Ashley gravely so - in September after eating a salad made with a bag of the leafy greens contaminated by E. coli.

That and other incidents of contamination have raised questions not only about the food supply but also about efforts by the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies to keep it safe.

"I hope these hearings will help alert the American people, Congress and the administration to the seriousness of this issue," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. "If it is not taken seriously, these kinds of poisonings can, and will, happen again."

Matters of trust

Also testifying was Gary Pruden, joined by his 11-year-old son, Sean, who was seriously sickened in November by E. coli after eating at a Taco Bell. Pruden said a key element of trade and commerce was trust - whether placed in accountants, airline pilots, or auto mechanics.

"That is also extended to the trust in the food we order or buy from the grocery store - that it's edible and safe," Pruden told the subcommittee. "Without that trust, commerce cannot work. And where failure occurs, oversight is required."

The safety of domestic food was questioned anew last fall when officials traced a nationwide E. coli outbreak to contaminated spinach processed by Natural Selection Foods L.L.C. Three people died, and nearly 200 others were sickened. More recently, contaminated peanut butter and pet food have been recalled.

"I don't see the latest string of incidents as aberrations," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D., Colo.). "It's become a systemic problem, and it calls for systemic solutions."

Fragmented system

DeGette has introduced legislation to give the FDA and Agriculture Department the authority to mandate recalls, in line with a proposal by the Government Accountability Office. Other legislative efforts include proposals to create a single Food Safety Administration and to develop a uniform reporting system to track contaminated food.

In January, the government's fragmented food-safety system was added to a congressional "high-risk" list, indicating its inefficiencies left it vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse. Fifteen federal agencies administer at least 30 laws pertaining to food safety. The FDA, however, is the main food-safety agency.

A panel of officials from companies involved in the recalls expressed their sympathy, sadness and support for victims of the outbreaks. None said a government-mandated recall would have changed how they dealt, voluntarily, with removing their products from the marketplace.