Salmonella Outbreak Fuels Food-Safety Efforts
(Wall Street Journal)
By JANE ZHANG
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
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
Stephen Sundlof, director of the
FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said Thursday that while
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
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
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
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