Food Safety Shell Game

Posted Feb. 10, 2009, at 7:47 p.m.

The reports sound like something from a less developed country: cockroaches scurrying across the factory floor, rainwater leaking through the roof, company executives who refused to release test results and overworked inspectors who made it to the plants under their watch only once every several years. The consequences were sadly predictable: eight people dead and nearly 20,000 sickened by peanut butter contaminated with salmonella.

In China, company officials associated with the tainting of milk products by deadly melamine were sentenced to death. The American justice system, mercifully, doesn’t work that way, but it is past time for the Food and Drug Administration to play a more serious role in safeguarding the nation’s food supply.

A good place to start would be to change the policy that allows companies to keep the results of safety tests away from government regulators. Increasing the department’s funding for food safety inspections is also necessary.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of FDA inspectors decreased by more than 400 between 2003 and 2007 while the number of businesses needing oversight grew by more than 7,000. As a result, many plant inspections are carried out by state officials.

“To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Food safety in America has become a hit-or-miss gamble, and that is truly frightening.”

There have been numerous salmonella outbreaks in recent years, but the current peanut butter problem is extremely widespread, sickening people in at least 44 states. Because peanut butter, unlike jalapeno peppers and tomatoes, is a ubiquitous part of the American diet, the ongoing recall is among the largest in U.S. history. Several of those who died from the current outbreak lived in elderly care facilities where peanut butter was likely considered a good source of needed protein.

The contaminated peanut butter came from a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Georgia, which is now closed.

Last month, the FDA said that company records show that 12 times between 2007 and 2008 tests showed that its peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella. If a second test came back negative, the product was shipped out. Such records are often kept private. Federal inspectors obtained the Peanut Corp. records by invoking a bioterrorism, not a food safety, law.

Whatever laws it takes, ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply must be a higher priority.

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