MARCH 19, 2009, 6:18 P.M. ET

Lawmakers Criticize Food Industry Over Inspections

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WASHINGTON -- House Democrats blamed the food industry for relying on suppliers to verify the safety of products, a practice lawmakers said contributed to the salmonella outbreak linked to tainted peanut products.

Food manufacturers, distributors and retailers often require that their suppliers pay for private inspections to ensure good quality. In the latest salmonella outbreak, the industry's self-policing practice failed to uncover the filthy peanut plant in Georgia that federal food-safety authorities identified as the center of the outbreak that has sickened nearly 700 and has been linked to nine deaths. The plant is owned by Peanut Corp. of America, now liquidating under federal bankruptcy law.

At a hearing Thursday, Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations panel, criticized the inspection of the plant by AIB International Inc., which was hired by Peanut Corp.

In an email last December, AIB gave Peanut Corp.'s plant manager at the Blakely, Ga., facility advance notice of an inspection. The inspector later gave the plant a superior rating. Subsequently, federal inspectors investigating the salmonella outbreak found mold, dead rodents and other safety violations at the plant.

AIB officials didn't return calls seeking comment.

Rep. Stupak said the results were "completely different" when Nestlé USA sent its own auditors to the plant. In 2002, Nestlé inspectors found rodent droppings, dead flour beetles and dead insects, among other food-safety problems, and another audit in 2006 found dead mice and a dead pigeon.

Lawmakers blamed companies, including Kellogg Co., whose chief executive officer sat at the witness table Thursday, for relying on the flawed inspections. "I think we did everything we could do," replied Kellogg CEO David Mackay. Kellogg, he said, requires certifications and audits for the 3,000 ingredients it buys from 1,000 suppliers.

Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) would have none of it. "I think Kellogg is sloppy," he said. "I think this resulted in a tragedy that could have been prevented."

Lawmakers and some industry officials have said that Congress should act soon to overhaul food-safety regulations. Different bills in Congress would impose more safety requirements on food companies, give the Food and Drug Administration authority to recall products, and require more inspections, as well as more record-keeping by food makers.

The food industry supports some changes. Mr. Mackay said food regulation needs an overhaul, and he's willing to accept more regulation, such as having the FDA set inspection standards and require that companies adopt measures to prevent contamination. He also said Kellogg has since stepped up efforts to ensure product safety, and now conducts internal tests on high-risk products.



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