Officials driven to take closer look at food safety

Source of Article:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Washington The deadly salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia peanut company is having an unexpected effect: It’s forcing lawmakers — finally, critics say — to improve food-safety regulations that in some cases haven’t been updated in a century.

Georgia legislators last week introduced bills that would enable county health officials to inspect local food-processing plants and also require food processors to report inspection results to state regulators.

• For all the latest developments on the peanut crisis and the salmonella outbreak, with an updated list of recalled items, plus background on the scare, go to the AJC's special report:

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) proposed legislation creating the national Food Safety Administration to combine all of the government’s food-safety functions. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is working on similar legislation in the Senate. Other members of Congress are pushing bills that would levy new fees on food processors to pay for improvements at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and create nationwide tracking systems for all food products.

“All of us have a responsibility to learn from this tragedy and to take the necessary steps to ensure no other family has to endure what you’ve experienced,” U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) told families of salmonella poisoning victims at a hearing last week.

Major changes would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, a fact conceded by advocates and legislators alike. Still, some procedural changes could be made on the cheap.

For instance, Gingrey suggested that food-processing companies be required to forward internal inspection reports to state and federal regulators. If that had happened at the Peanut

Corporation of America’s plant in Blakely, it might have stopped the 44-state salmonella outbreak traced to the plant. On Friday, the crisis also claimed the company itself, with Peanut Corp. filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Food safety advocates say regulation upgrades are long overdue. Some rules regarding food handling, they say, haven’t changed since the FDA was created about 100 years ago following the release of the epic Upton Sinclair novel “The Jungle” that exposed unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing business.

“Maybe I’m a crazy optimist, but I actually think there’s a chance” for reforms this time, said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at the nonprofit Consumers Union advocacy group.

Consumers Union and other groups point to last year’s salmonella outbreak tied to peppers, the previous year’s outbreak connected to another Georgia peanut plant and other health scares involving pork, beef and spinach in recent years.

“How many more times do they need to hear the same story that the system is broken?” asked Jim O’Hara, a former FDA official who is director of the Produce Safety Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. The sheer size of the latest salmonella outbreak and the number of sick and dead — nine deaths have been connected to the outbreak; 637 have fallen ill —underscores the urgency for new regulations, O’Hara said.

“The human cost has become so visible and undeniable that I think we may finally get the action the broken system has deserved for more than a decade now,” he said.

Previous attempts to overhaul food safety rules wilted amid budget cutbacks, the complexity and breadth of the food industry and partisan politics, O’Hara and others said.

“We also had an administration [the Bush administration] that was philosophically opposed to regulations,” Halloran said. She said the Obama administration already has signaled it will take a tougher stance on food safety.

Some reformers are pushing to move the food inspection duties out of the FDA and into another existing agency, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is charged with inspecting meat.

“I think you’re going to see some legislative changes at least in the structure” of food safety regulations, said Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. “I’m not one to think you ought to create and add new bureaucracies, but this may be a time where we see the FDA can’t do the job,” he said. “Maybe the FDA ought to concentrate on drugs and let a new agency come in and concentrate on food safety inspection — or put [food inspections] under the USDA.”


Most Americans know about the salmonella outbreak, but many are wrong about the products involved, a Harvard survey released Friday says.

• 93 percent know about the outbreak and recall.

• About one in four in the poll mistakenly thought that national peanut butter brands have been recalled.

• Fewer than half are worrying about products that actually have been recalled.

• Only one in three said they have a good or great amount of confidence in food manufacturers or government inspectors to keep food safe.



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