More Than Peanuts
Tougher regulation is needed to keep food suppliers from putting '$$$$$' ahead of lives.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

STEWART PARNELL, president of the Peanut Corporation of America, came to Washington on Wednesday to face the music. His company is at the center of a salmonella outbreak transmitted through peanut products that have been linked to nine deaths and 637 illnesses in 44 states and Canada. The resulting product recall has been one of the biggest in U.S. history. But after Mr. Parnell, under subpoena to appear before a congressional committee, took the oath, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. By Friday, his company had filed for bankruptcy. Given the story that is emerging, it's no wonder.

The Food and Drug Administration discovered that PCA's Blakely, Ga., plant knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted product 12 times in 2007 and 2008. There were suspicions that the parent company, based in Lynchburg, Va., was lab shopping for negative salmonella test results. The Justice Department began a criminal investigation. Then came the hearings of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, which released damning e-mails. In one message, Mr. Parnell complained to the plant manager that the delay in getting a favorable test result "is costing us huge $$$$$." In another note, that plant manager reported that a previous finding of salmonella came back negative from another lab. To which Mr. Parnell replied, "Okay, let's turn them loose then."

Now that the hearing's theatrics are over, it's time for Congress to pass legislation that would reduce the chance of another food scandal.

The Peanut Corporation of America was not required to report its numerous positive salmonella results to state or federal authorities. Companies need to be required to test for the hazards that are most likely to occur in their products, and standards for what constitutes a hazard must be devised. A bill from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) would do this. One from Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) would mandate the use of a certified lab and require that the results be sent directly to the FDA. Add to that bills sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) for mandatory recalls of contaminated food and for a program to trace food and produce from farm to fork, and you have the makings of a comprehensive approach to safeguarding the nation's food supply. No system can be foolproof or error-free. But these measures would, at least, establish a system where none exists.

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