U.S. Lawmakers Vow Food Safety Reforms as Peanut Recalls Set Record

February 9, 2009

Lawmakers are vowing to press for stronger food safety laws and more money for inspections as the list of recalled peanut products surpassed 1,000 in an ongoing national salmonella outbreak.

“There is an openness to putting together the strongest legislation possible,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who introduced a bill to reorganize federal food safety enforcement and make it more accountable.

Meanwhile, the number of recalled peanut products approached 1,100 in what independent experts said appears to be a record for foods consumed by humans.

The 2007 recall of melamine-tainted pet food eventually grew to 1,179 products but “this is human food,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I’m certainly not aware of any recall where so many individual branded products had to be called back, which makes it really complicated for consumers.”

The salmonella outbreak has sickened at least 550 people, eight of whom have died. A peanut-processing plant in Blakely, Ga., that produces just 1 percent of U.S. peanut products is being blamed. Authorities say Peanut Corp. of America shipped peanut butter, paste and other products that had tested positive for salmonella. The Lynchburg, Va.-based company has denied any wrongdoing and said Wednesday that the Blakely plant received regular visits and inspections from state and federal authorities in 2008.

“Independent audit and food safety firms also conducted customary unannounced inspections of the Blakely facility in 2008. One gave the plant an overall ‘superior’ rating, and the other rated the plant as ‘meet or exceeds audit expectations (acceptable-excellent)’ ratings,” the company said in a statement.

Last week, House Education Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., asked for an investigation of whether tainted peanut products were distributed through the federal school lunch program.

It remains unclear whether Congress can deliver major improvements in food safety this year, given the press of critical issues such as the shaky economy and a ballooning federal deficit. Senior Democrats are dusting off legislation that went nowhere last year and hoping for better luck under President Barack Obama, who has criticized the Food and Drug Administration’s handling of the outbreak.

Two regular citizens whose lives were changed by the salmonella outbreak joined DeLauro at a press conference in the Capitol building and described the food safety bureaucracy as slow, opaque and disjointed.

Gabrielle Meunier of South Burlington, Vt., said she spent weeks wondering how her 7-year-old son Chris came down with salmonella and wound up in the hospital, when no one else in the family got sick. Eventually she found out on the Internet that Canadian authorities had identified salmonella in crackers that her son liked, and which were still in her house. “That was one of my outrages,” she said. “My seven-year-old could have eaten those crackers again, and he could have died.”

Jeff Almer of Savage, Minn., lost his mother Shirley Mae Almer, who was 72 and twice a cancer survivor. She died the day before she was supposed to come home for Christmas from a rehab center where she was recuperating from a urinary infection.

“I expect that food poisoning will never go away, but there’s so many things that could be done better,” said Almer. Calling the food safety system “fractious,” he said the government needs automatic access to the internal inspection records of food producers. The FDA had to invoke bioterrorism laws to get testing records from Peanut Corp.

The Meunier and Almer families have sued Peanut Corp.

Inside Congress, at least four major bills to reform the food safety system have been, or will soon be, introduced. They have major points in common, but differ in details.

All would give the FDA authority to order recalls, which are now voluntary.

Reformers also agree that food processing plants should be required to have a safety plan and document their compliance. And there is widespread agreement that standards for imported foods must be upgraded.

There’s also consensus that inspections should be carried out according to common requirements, but legislators differ on how frequently checks should be performed.

There’s agreement on the need for standards for fresh produce, but there are differences over setting up a traceback system to find foods implicated in an outbreak.

DeLauro’s bill calls for taking food safety away from the FDA, where it is sometimes seen as a bureaucratic stepchild, and setting up a new Food Safety Administration within the Health and Human Services Dept.

William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner, said no reforms can succeed without more money. He says the FDA must double its food safety budget to about $1 billion a year.

But even with that, Hubbard warned, the agency would not be able to regularly inspect some 150,000 facilities that produce, ship and store foods. He says the answer is a food safety system in which the FDA sets rules that all players in the food industry must comply with and that states help to enforce.


On the Net:

The FDA’s recall page: http://tinyurl.com/8srctw

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