Stronger oversight is a way to improve U.S. food safety

Source of Article:  http://www.mcall.com/news/opinion/all-ourviewhed.6839864apr02,0,3388481.story

April 2, 2009

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was notified by Kraft Foods on March 24 that it had pistachios infected by salmonella. A week later, the American public heard about it and more than 2 million pounds of nuts were recalled. Today, coast-to-coast, it's hard to find a single package of pistachios in the stores.

The good news is that so far, no one has gotten sick. But the pistachio recall, like the peanut recall earlier this year, shows that the nation's food safety could be better. Under current law, Kraft was not required to notify the FDA about the pistachios. It's possible for companies to hide findings from state and federal officials, as Peanut Corp. of America did.

This time, a voluntary notice led to the roasted pistachios from Setton Pistachio of Terra Bell Inc. being recalled. Rather than wait for individuals or hospitals to report illness, the FDA was more aggressive and ordered a broad recall. According to the California Pistachio Board, the state supplies 99.9 percent of all U.S. pistachios.

About 76 million Americans a year are sickened by food-borne disease. About 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die. Food-borne illnesses cost $44 billion a year.

The Department of Health and Human Services is applying laws that date to 1906 and 1938, with no system to coordinate them with advanced technologies and practices. Another problem is funding and staffing. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the turnover rate in the FDA science staff is twice that of any other government agency. The inspection of imported food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, which account for 60 percent of the total, and seafood, of which 75 percent is imported, is spotty. Only 1 percent of all imported foods is currently inspected.

California Assemblyman Mike Feuer responded to the pistachio recall by pushing state legislation that would require regular tests at all California food processing plants and would mandate reporting of any contamination within 24 hours. In addition, plants will have to submit a plan to prevent contamination.

A non-profit think tank, Trust for America's Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation just issued a report urging creation of a separate food safety administration within Health and Human Services, with a deputy commissioner who has authority over all food safety issues, and making other recommendations.

The report was dated March 25 -- two days before news of the pistachio recall became public.



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