House Panel Questions Industry on Food Safety
Source of Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/health/policy/20food.html?ref=us
Published: March 19, 2009
The Kellogg Company and dozens of other food manufacturers relied on the auditor hired by the plant, owned by the Peanut Corporation of America, to assure the safety of the peanut ingredients in hundreds of cookie and cracker products. Called before a House committee on Thursday to explain themselves, the manufacturers said they had done their best.
“I think we did everything we could do,” said A. D. David Mackay, the president and chief executive of Kellogg. “The third-party audit was a key part of it.”
But Mr. Mackay and two other executives from food companies agreed with legislators that fundamental changes to the oversight of food safety were needed. And after more than 20 hearings over two years, powerful members of the Energy and Commerce Committee said such reforms would pass soon.
“We’ve had hearing after hearing after hearing on this, and we’ve really done nothing about the problem,” said Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas. “It’s time we did something.”
Despite tests that showed its products were contaminated with salmonella, the Peanut Corporation shipped its peanut products to dozens of companies whose foods were eventually linked to illness in more than 600 people and nine deaths. Food and Drug Administration inspectors conducted few assessments of the plant, and those who did were unaware of laboratory tests that had detected salmonella. F.D.A. officials said they largely relied on the industry to ensure the safety of food.
But industry representatives said at the hearing Thursday that they relied on the F.D.A. to ensure that food was produced safely. Heather C. Isely, an owner of Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets, based in Lakewood, Colo., was asked why she did not send auditors to the Peanut Corporation’s plants.
“We rely on the government inspection system,” Ms. Isely said.
The committee focused particular ire at the American Institute of Baking, which conducts many of the independent audits of food plants for major manufacturers. The organization was the subject of an article in The New York Times two weeks ago that pointed out that third-party audits were being increasingly used by food makers, even though their rigor varied widely.
In some of the largest outbreaks of food poisoning in recent years, private auditors failed to detect problems.
“There is an obvious and inherent conflict of interest when an auditor works for the same supplier it is evaluating, and several documents show evidence of this cozy relationship,” said Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan.
Mr. Stupak released a Dec. 22 e-mail message from a baking institute auditor to the manager of a Peanut Corporation plant in Georgia.
“You lucky guy. I am your AIB auditor,” the e-mail said. “So we need to get your plant set up for any audit.”
In a statement, the organization said third-party auditors could not “uncover and address food safety issues if intentional deceit and unethical behavior deliberately undermine the system.”
Pictures of the Texas plant shown at the hearing depicted dead mice scattered about the facility. Despite the problems, the baking institute gave the plant a “certificate of achievement” that Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, waved in front of witnesses.
“How could a facility that was in such deplorable conditions receive such glowing reviews?” asked Mr. Waxman, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “And how is it possible that any of our witnesses could have relied on such flawed inspections?”
The committee contrasted the baking institute’s audit with one conducted by an inspector for Nestlé that found dozens of dead mice, a situation the auditor called “unacceptable.”
Mr. Mackay of Kellogg listed nine steps that Congress should take to improve the nation’s food safety system, including creating a single food safety agency, requiring that manufacturers have definitive plans to manufacture safely, providing federal authorities with mandatory recall authority and requiring annual government inspections of facilities making high-risk foods like peanut butter.
Many of those suggestions have broad support in Congress.
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