Salmonella Outbreak Fuels Food-Safety Efforts

(Wall Street Journal)



The salmonella outbreak that may have killed eight people, sickened at least 575 and led to the recall of more than 1,500 peanut-related products has kick-started efforts to repair the U.S. food-safety system.


President Barack Obama cited his concerns as a public official and a father -- his 7-year-old daughter eats peanut butter -- when he called this past week for a complete review of Food and Drug Administration operations.


His worries were echoed by lawmakers who are pushing for an FDA food-safety overhaul, following a series of food-poisoning cases in recent years involving bagged spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, wheat flour from China and hot peppers from Mexico. Government regulation, they say, must be tightened to contend with centralization of food production, a flood of imported foods and the growing popularity of prepared meals, all of which have been blamed for outbreaks of salmonella and other ailments.


Democrats say the administration of George W. Bush underfunded federal food-safety efforts in its zeal to cut regulations. But critics cite other longstanding problems, including antiquated laws, sometimes dating back more than 100 years, that fracture responsibility for food safety among a dozen federal agencies.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and egg products. The FDA covers other foods, including vegetables. Of the two, the FDA faces bigger challenges. It doesn't have a clear mandate to set food-safety standards and lacks manpower for frequent inspections.


Both agencies rely on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to detect disease trends. The CDC in turn relies on understaffed state and local health departments to spot contamination outbreaks. When things go wrong, the FDA and USDA generally don't have the authority to order food recalls -- producers have to voluntarily submit.


"To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, during a food-safety hearing Thursday. Waving a jar of peanut butter, he declared that U.S. food safety "has become a hit-or-miss gamble, and that is truly frightening."


Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said Thursday that while the U.S. "food supply continues to be among the safest in the world, we look forward to working with the president and Congress to make our food even safer."


Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) plans to introduce legislation that would give the FDA authority to order food recalls and set safety standards for fresh fruits and vegetables. Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) is pushing a bill that would fund FDA inspections with fees from food companies and increase penalties for safety violations.


Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D., Conn.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee panel that oversees the FDA budget, introduced legislation Wednesday to split the FDA into two agencies, one for food safety, the other regulating drugs and medical devices. "The fundamental issue is the current structure of the agency," she said.


At the FDA, consumer advocates allege, food regulation has long played second fiddle to drug regulation. The agency's food-program budget totaled $510 million in fiscal 2008, or 22% of its overall budget. That same year, there were 2,633 employees in the food program, down from 3,167 five years earlier.


Fewer field employees translates into fewer inspections. FDA food inspections have dropped

78% from 35 years ago, according to a 2007 report by an FDA advisory panel, which concluded that the agency's ability to regulate food is "severely eroded, as is its ability to respond to outbreaks in a timely manner."


Peanut Corp. of America's Blakely, Ga., facility -- ground zero in the continuing salmonella outbreak -- hadn't been examined by FDA inspectors since 2001. In 2006, the FDA contracted with the Georgia Department of Agriculture to conduct regular inspections of food makers, an arrangement the FDA has with 41 other states.


An FDA investigation last month turned up a leaky roof, mold, cracks in the floor and other unsanitary conditions. The agency also alleged that the plant had shipped products after samples tested positive for salmonella. The Justice Department and the FDA recently announced a criminal investigation.


Peanut Corp., which stopped work at the Blakely plant and recalled products made there since Jan. 1, 2007, has said the FDA report contained inaccuracies but hasn't elaborated. Amy Rotenberg, a Minneapolis lawyer hired by Peanut Corp., said this past week, "We are working very hard to gather and understand all of the facts."


The USDA said this past week that it would no longer buy Peanut Corp. products, and that it was tracking down what might be left of 32 truckloads of the company's goods shipped to schools in Idaho, Minnesota and California in 2007. 2-07-09





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