Our view on food safety: Poisonous peanuts

Salmonella outbreak shows need for notification, better regulation

Source of Article: http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2009/02/our-view-on-foo.html

Reading the stark government report on the Georgia plant linked to the deadly salmonella outbreak is enough to make any peanut-lover ill and wonder why the company was allowed to stay in business.

The Peanut Corp. of America's recently closed plant in Blakely, Ga., produced peanuts, peanut butter and other peanut products that found their way into hundreds of food items. Typically, it's hard for salmonella bacteria to thrive in low-moisture peanut products. But the company's sloppy, seemingly indifferent attitude toward cleanliness gave the bacteria plenty of help.

Food and Drug Administration inspectors who examined the plant last month found holes in the roof and stains that showed water regularly got into areas where the company kept finished food. There was mold on walls and ceilings in food storage areas, and roaches were found in the washroom. The building had holes where pests could come and go and a crack in the floor that tested positive for salmonella. Dirt and contamination appeared in many places, including a "slimy, black-brown residue" that suggested the company put little priority on cleaning.

Even worse, the company had clear signals of danger but ignored them. When the FDA employed a bioterrorism statute to force the company to turn over its internal tests, the agency found that at least 12 times beginning in June 2007, salmonella had shown up in finished peanut products. Instead of destroying the food, the company ordered it retested, and when subsequent tests showed no salmonella, the company shipped it. (Salmonella can thrive in pockets in peanut products, so the same product can test positive and negative.) Even after tests showed salmonella, the company failed to clean its production equipment. The FDA and the Justice Department have launched a criminal investigation, as well they should in an outbreak that has sickened more than 500 people and killed eight.

Though the company bears primary responsibility for safe products, it's the job of regulators to ensure that corners aren't being cut. Why didn't they crack down sooner in this case?

It turns out that the resource-strapped FDA had delegated the job of routine inspections to the Georgia Department of Agriculture. From 2006 to 2008, the state inspectors frequently cited the plant for unsanitary conditions. Despite all this, a top Georgia agriculture official told The New York Times that the state saw just "minor" problems at the plant. That makes you wonder what Georgia considers serious when it comes to your food.

Congress, which has held numerous hearings on food safety, reacted predictably to this latest crisis with a flurry of proposals to give the FDA more resources and more power to monitor food companies and order food recalls. That's all fine, if belated, but one obvious fix stands out: Had the Georgia plant been required to tell safety regulators about those 12 positive salmonella tests, officials could have stepped in sooner and required the plant to clean up its act. Instead, the company knew it didn't have to tell anyone, and acted accordingly.

If there's one thing Congress should fix, and quickly, that's it.

 

 

 

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