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Suspect Peanuts Sent to Schools

Michael R. Taylor, Research Professor of Health Policy, School of Public Health, The George Washington University
Michael R. Taylor, Research Professor of Health Policy, School of Public Health, The George Washington University (The George Washington University)

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Michael R. Taylor
Fmr. Food and Drug Administration Official and Professor at George Washington University School of Public Health
Friday, February 6, 2009; 1:00 PM

Peanut Corporation of America sold 32 truckloads of roasted peanuts and peanut butter to the federal government for a free-lunch program for poor children even as the company's internal tests showed that its products were contaminated with salmonella bacteria.

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The fact that a federal agency that shares responsibility for keeping food safe was among the thousands of customers that may have received tainted food from the Blakely, Ga., plant is the latest revelation in a scandal that has exposed an array of failures in the government's systems for keeping deadly pathogens out of the food supply.

Michael R. Taylor, a former Food and Drug Administration official who is a professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health, was online Friday, Feb. 6, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the implementation of food safety and the contaminated food supply.

A transcript follows.

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Michael R. Taylor: I'm Mike Taylor with the GW School of Public Health. I look forward to your questions about food safety.

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Midwest: Like many people, I suspect, I have an unopened jar of PB on the shelf. It is not on the recall list -- YET -- but that list seems to be expanding daily. Should I just toss it? How are consumers to know?

Michael R. Taylor:

FDA is saying that if it is a brand name peanut butter there is no concern because they are not produced at the Georgia plant. If it is a store brand, my guess is it was not produced at that plant, but I would play it safe and toss it.

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Arlington, Va.: How many pounds is "32 truckloads"?

Michael R. Taylor: I wish I knew, but it's a LOT of peanut butter!

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Fairfax, Va.: How could a company go ahead and sell the peanut ingredients to a school system when it knew the product failed the tests? How did this happen?

Michael R. Taylor:

If the facts are as reported, this is reckless behavior. Strong food safety programs in food manufacturing facilities begin with the commitment of top management and a strong food safety culture within the company. That seems to have been woefully lacking in this company.

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Arlington, Va.: Did the Georgia plant produce peanuts in the shell such as people get a baseball games or just processed peanut products?

Michael R. Taylor: My understanding is that the plant started out as a roaster (though I don't know if they were for sale in or out of the shell) and later moved on to produce peanut paste and peanut butter. With sprong training around the corner, FDA needs to be clear about this!

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How is salmonella getting on peanuts?: With most of the peanuts having been cooked or roasted, why does the salmonella germ persists? Does the plant process chicken? What is the origin of the salmonella? Is the plant infested with salmonella? Is chicken manure used to grow peanuts?

Michael R. Taylor: There are many possible "vectors" for Salmonella, essentially all of which go back to fecal matter. You're right that cooking of the peanuts should kill it, but it's also possible that due to the conditions in the plant the product could have been contaminated after cooking by, and of course it's sold "ready to eat."

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Annapolis, Md.: How many other produces is peanut "paste" in? I thought it just came in jars of Skippy or Jif. What consumer products are affected?

Michael R. Taylor: Peanut paste is used as an ingredient in a wide range of cookie, candy, ice cream and other food products. The FDA web site should have more on that.

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My Diet will finally work!: I have ditched the candy, gave up fast food, eat minimal bread, made peace with pizza, and switched to roasted peanuts in the shell. Say it aint so....peanuts.

Totally off subject...... I saw a clip about the man who tampered with Tylenol products in the 80s being investigated for more crimes. For all of you who don't remember or are too young. This is the man who tampered with Tylenol medicine by opening bottles and adding poison to it. People died because of it.

So all of us who fight plastic wrap on most EVERY food product and wonder WHY!? It was this sorry piece of humanity that changed the way almost every processed food item is packaged, especially medicine.

Michael R. Taylor: I feel your pain on the difficulty of opening OTC medicines.

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washingtonpost.com: FDA

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Arlington, Va.: I've pretty much lost all faith in the FDA, and that is a disconcerting feeling. I understand that the company was at fault here, but it seems the FDA is incapable of doing any oversight. Is this a fair statement? How can they improve, and will they?

Labs are not required to report negative results from plants? That just makes no sense at all.

Michael R. Taylor:

I understand your feelings about FDA. Having worked there twice and having high regard for many of the people there, I find this to be a very sad time. FDA can do better with the tools it has, but it labors under an obsolete 1938 law, has had its food safety resources reduced over the last decade or more and has an internally fragmented organizational structure that gets in the way of leadership and action. As President Obama says, FDA's operations need a complete review, and Congress needs to give FDA the tools it needs to be successful.

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Lincoln, Neb.: Why are cooked/baked products, like cookies, still contaminated? I thought cooking to 160 degrees killed salmonella. I can understand the raw peanut butter in crackers, but why are cakes, etc., still dangerous. (Aside from the ICK factor of the dry roasted rat.....)

Michael R. Taylor:

Good question. Cooking does kill Salmonella, but that's not a justification for introducing a contaminated ingredient into a bakery or other facilty. Anything can happen to result in contaminated finished product, includign post-coking contamination.

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Arlington, Va.: Will this go to Congress? Someone said in the Post story today that the FDA was not a food inspector. What did that mean? If they aren't, who is?

Michael R. Taylor:

FDA has authority to inspect but no mandate to do so with and thus Congress has provided steadily declining resources for inspection. FDA conducts maybe 6,000 food safety inspections a year, but there are about 60,000 facilities. Do the math on the frequency of inspection. Congress needs to mandate some level of inspection and provide the money.

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washingtonpost.com: Michael Taylor has stepped away for a few minutes. The chat will resume. Please stand by.

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Burke, Va.: What agency is responsible for bad stuff getting into school lunches?

Michael R. Taylor: First of all it's the responsbility of the company to produce and provide a safe product. The FDA also has a resposibility. And the Agriculture Marketing Service within the Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) is the purchaser of food for the lunch program. They also should take steps to ensure that their suppliers are observing high food safety standards.

The AMS should behave just like Kellogg's and other brand-name company to be knowledgeable about the food supply safety of the products. It's a widely shared responsibility.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Is it true that much of food inspection is reactive, meaning many food illness outbreaks actually are not caught until people get sick and then investigators react and attempt to determine the cause of the outbreak? How hard is it to inspect and catch potential dangers before the products reach the consumers?

Michael R. Taylor: The most fundamental flaw in the FDA food safety program is that it is primarily reactive rather than preventive so rather than simply hoping to detect and contain problems after they occur the FDA should be given the authority and the mandate to enforce the duty of the companies to implement modern, preventive controls in their food production systems. In short the FDA should be enforcing the company's responsibility to have a strong system in place rather than just reacting when a company fails.

Congress needs to act to change their paradym, to make prevention the new paradym for food safety.

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London, U.K.: What sort of training does one go through to become a food inspector? Is there a shortage of inspectors -- and if so, why? Furthermore, are criminal charges possible, as it seems contaminated food was knowingly sent out?

Michael R. Taylor: FDA inspectors typically have college degrees with science training. There is a shortage of inspectors because Congress has not provided the funding necessary for an adequate inspection force at FDA.

The sale of an unsafe, contaminated food can be prosecuted criminally but typically only as a misdemeanor which means a maximum of one year in prison for violation.

This penalty seems too lenient when people die or go to the hospital.

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Montreal, Quebec: Why is this still going on? Hasn't unsafe product already been withdrawn from the market? When can consumers start eating peanut products in the U.S. without worrying about contamination?

Michael R. Taylor: According to the CDS they're still getting reports of illness from this outbreak, and the reason for this is because many of the products involved, including peanut butter itself, have a very long shelf-life. This is lasting longer than say an outbreak associated with fresh produce because it's out of the food chain quickly.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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