By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009; A04
President Obama had critical words for the Food and Drug Administration yesterday in the midst of a massive recall of peanut products linked to a nationwide outbreak of salmonella illness that has killed eight people and sickened another 550.
"I think the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch them, so we're going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations," Obama told Matt Lauer during an interview broadcast on NBC's "Today" show.
"At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter," the president said.
"That's what Sasha eats for lunch," Obama said, referring to his 7-year-old daughter. "Probably three times a week. I don't want to worry about whether she's going to get sick as a consequence of eating her lunch."
While all of the fatalities involved people older than 59, half of the reported cases of salmonella illness have involved children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Government Accountability Office, consumer groups, congressional critics and industry associations have been calling for an overhaul of the FDA, which is charged with ensuring the safety of the country's food and drug supply but has been buffeted by a string of crises involving tainted spinach, contaminated baby formula and pet food, and the current problem with peanut products.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they have questions for the FDA about its operations. The Senate Agriculture Committee has called a hearing for later this week;
the House Energy and Commerce Committee plans one next week.
The agency is being run by an acting commissioner; Obama has yet to name a new agency chief, although the White House has said an appointment is likely to come within days.
The outbreak of salmonella illness began in late summer and has been traced to a Blakely, Ga., plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America. The company sells peanut butter to nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions and makes peanut ingredients that are used in a variety of products, including cookies and dog biscuits.
FDA officials said last week that the company knowingly shipped products that tested positive for salmonella on 12 occasions in 2007 and 2008, sometimes after sending the product to another laboratory and getting a negative reading for salmonella.
Food safety experts say salmonella can live in pockets of peanut butter, so that one batch could test both negative and positive. In that case, it should have been destroyed, they said.
In one of the largest recalls in history, the FDA and the company have recalled every product made from peanuts processed at the plant in the past two years. That list, which grows daily, now includes more than 800 products.