Food Safety in the Time of Salmonella Typhimurium

March 20, 2009
Jim Wagner

Of all the foods in all the world, who would have guessed that peanuts would be the cause of a national food safety shiver that in all likelihood will change how FDA does business?

Of all the foods in all the world, who would have guessed that peanuts would be the cause of a national food safety shiver that in all likelihood will change how FDA does business?

Peanut Corporation of America's (PCA; Blakely, GA) actions resulted in nearly 700 illnesses and eight deaths in 43 states. At one point, more than 28 million consumers logged on to FDA's Web site in search of information about contaminated products. Some 2100 products in 17 categories have been recalled.

Make no mistake, the incident isn't over. Legislators are rattling their pens. Bart Stupak (D–MI), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said that bills such as H.R. 759 would bring "long overdue change to protect the American people from dangers in the nation's food supply."

For those who delight in such things, H.R. 759, or the FDA Globalization Act of 2009, would tighten food plant registration, mandate hazard analysis, give the CDC authority to conduct food product surveillance, and require country of origin labeling for all ingredients. Oh, and install fees for certain FDA functions.

What the legislation cannot do is restore faith in food safety. Tainted spinach is bad enough, but contaminated cookies and brownies and peanut butter are as bad as it gets. Adding to the angst is the fact that children accounted for more than half of the sick. If we can't depend on peanuts, what can we trust?

As tempting as it seems, the answer isn't FDA. The agency can only do so much. There simply aren't enough inspectors, and to be frank, a determined transgressor can sweep infractions under the rug, so to speak. In Georgia, Department of Agriculture inspectors working under FDA contract visited PCA's plant nine times between 2006 and 2008. None saw the leaking roof or flying birds that were later reported by employees. Even after salmonella was uncovered, PCA allegedly tried to mask the results by sending out more samples, essentially trying to "test in" quality.

Quality first and foremost is a matter of corporate integrity. America's food supply is the best in the world because the overwhelming number of manufacturers take enormous pride in their operations, not because FDA is patrolling plant floors. Granting FDA more enforcement and recall powers would strengthen its bite, but enforcement isn't prevention. As PCA proved so vividly, only a true commitment to quality keeps bad product from going out the door.

Rest assured that PCA will pay a heavy price. About 50 lawsuits are pending, along with a criminal investigation. PCA filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection on February 7, and its Texas and Virginia plants have been shuttered. The company is out of the peanut business with enough legal trouble for the next decade.

Is it enough to restore public trust? People, consumers, might forgive, but they won't forget. More than ever, now is the time to make quality job one.

James WagnerPublisher
tel: 610/ 409-9081
fax: 310/445-4269
e-mail: jwagner@nutritionaloutlook.com

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