Health Official Admits Faster Action Needed in Salmonella Outbreak
Source of Article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/05/AR2009020500743.html
A top federal official acknowledged for the first time today that public health officials were slow to recognize salmonella cases caused by contaminated peanut butter as they spread across the country and that faster action might have been able to contain an outbreak that has so far killed eight people and sickened at least 575 in 43 states.
"We need new laboratory tools, new information tools, computer assisted telephones to bring information together in real-time," said Rear Adm. Ali S. Khan, assistant surgeon general, told the Senate agriculture committee this morning. "We need better investment on the state and local level to make diagnoses more quickly. . . . There are a number of opportunities to shorten this timeline and have cases identified quicker."
Khan was responding to questions posed by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who said he did not understand why the first illnesses were reported in early September but it took five months before a recall of the contaminated products was issued.
"You all have got to figure out some way to speed up the process," Chambliss said. "This was a huge breakdown in the system here. A total lack of information sharing between all of our food safety organizations. It's pretty obvious we have to make some major changes."
State health officials in Minnesota and Connecticut were the first who first traced the salmonella illness outbreak to King Nut peanut butter, which was sold to institutions such as nursing homes and schools and was made at a small plant in Blakely, Ga., owned by the Peanut Corporation of America.
In addition to making peanut butter for private labels and institutions, the Blakely plant produced peanut paste and other peanut-containing ingredients that were sold to manufacturers who use them in a wide variety of consumer products, including cakes, crackers, ice cream and even dog biscuits.
Gabrielle Meunier, whose 7-year-old son,
Christopher, was hospitalized in
"I was kept completely in the dark," Meunier said. "I wasn't even aware the FDA was involved. When I tried to call the CDC, they wouldn't even take my call. There were so many time delays. And I had that poison in my house the whole time."
"It seems to me that is a gaping loophole," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the committee chairman. "A company that does its own testing finds salmonella and doesn't have to report it to the FDA."
The FDA also
did not know the company was making peanut butter at the
When FDA officials went into the plant last month for the first time in five years, however, they found a leaky roof, water stains, poor ventilation, mold, dead roaches, unsanitary equipment as well as four types of salmonella.
That suggests the inspection process was inadequate, Harkin said.
has recalled all peanut products made at its
company's customers was the U.S. Agriculture Department, which purchased
peanuts and peanut butter from the Blakely plant for distribution to schools
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack removed the
company's president, Stewart Parnell, from a USDA advisory board on peanut
product standards. The board advises the agriculture secretary on quality and
handling standards for domestic and imported peanuts marketed in the
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