A Tale of Two Scares

Monday, May 4, 2009

THE RECENT salmonella outbreaks in peanuts and pistachios revealed a lot about the inability of the Food and Drug Administration to nip such problems in the bud. The FDA is responsible for "protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of . . . our nation's food supply," yet it doesn't have the authority to order product testing, require that test results be shared with the agency or issue a mandatory recall when a facility moves too slowly -- if at all -- in getting tainted products off the shelves. Legislation to augment its authority is flowing through Congress like peanut butter. The concern is such that private companies and nonprofit groups alike have been pressing for action on food safety legislation in recent meetings with congressional leaders.

Thank the aggressive food safety system at Kraft Foods for last month's recall of the entire 2008 pistachio crop of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella in California. Internal testing by Kraft between December 2007 and last month found salmonella in a trail mix made from those pistachios. Kraft voluntarily informed the FDA of the positive salmonella test results on March 23 after it was able to link them to Setton's pistachios. There have only been two complaints of illness and no deaths reported.

This stands in contrast to the alleged behavior of Peanut Corporation of America. While it conducted tests of its peanuts, the Georgia-based company allegedly shopped around for the test results it wanted. Tainted products were said to have been shipped out at the behest of the company's president, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when he was hauled before congressional hearings in February. The salmonella strain led to the largest product recall in American history. The tainted peanuts have been linked to 691 illnesses in 46 states and are believed by the FDA to have contributed to nine deaths.

With each successive food scare, the clamor for action grows louder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that calls for new efforts to revamp food safety. Congress has done nothing to move substantial legislation forward that would give the FDA the authority it would need to more effectively safeguard the food supply. A bill from Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) would require the agency to devise a program that would allow it to trace food from farm to fork. The Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act, sponsored by Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), would require product testing with results to be simultaneously reported to the company and the FDA. It would also give the FDA the power to issue a mandatory recall.

Overall, the safety of the nation's food supply is strong. But each salmonella outbreak serves to highlight its deficiencies -- deficiencies that could be repaired.

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