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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Change We Need: Peanut Contamination Demonstrates Need for Oversight Overhaul

Ann-Marie Luciano Bio

Yesterday, federal investigators revealed that Peanut Corporation of America knowingly shipped products with salmonella from its Blakely, Georgia plant after tests showed the products were contaminated. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into Peanut Corp., which is the least that could be done considering the damage caused: 575 people sick, at least eight deaths and the recall of approximately 1,550 products.

Salmonella contamination isn't the only problem that has plagued Peanut Corp. In 2001, FDA inspectors discovered that some food products potentially were exposed to insecticides. Inspectors found dead insects near peanuts, holes in the plant large enough for rodents to enter, dirty duct tape on broken equipment and discovered that the plant used an insecticide fogger in food processing areas without washing the exposed food processing equipment. Yuck. If this weren't bad enough, various USDA "contract auditors" had been making visits to the plant and knew about the insecticide fogger and approved of the use of duct tape on broken equipment.

What did the FDA do in response? Nothing. They allowed Peanut Corp. to fix the problems on their own because there was no direct evidence that finished food products were being contaminated.

These food contamination issues at Peanut Corp. demonstrate two main problems with U.S. food safety: (1) food regulation is inefficiently split between the FDA and USDA, leaving regulatory gaps; and (2) food "regulation" is often more guidance and less actual regulation.

Luckily, the change in administration will likely bring a change in food safety policy and regulation. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that he supports merging the nation's food safety system into one agency. This is a great first step. But if a new, centralized agency continues to favor voluntary compliance and remediation, how can we be guaranteed that food manufacturers are following the rules? A lot hinges on the staffers and leaders who will be working in any new combined agency.

Under the Bush administration, the USDA was run by former lobbyists for factory farmers and large food producers, as well as leaders from the "big food" industry itself. (The current Deputy Secretary of Agriculture is the former president of the Corn Refiners Association and the Chief of Staff is the former chief lobbyist for the National Cattelmen's Beef Association). If Secretary Vilsack ushers in a group of staffers who are committed to ensuring the safety of our nation's food supply rather than beholden to any special interest, then hopefully our food policy finally will evolve to put the American consumer first. I just hope that it doesn't take yet another major food contamination to spark the change we need.


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