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Questions for Peanut Butter Investigators

Keebler Toast and Peanut Butter CrackersMembers of Congress and others are calling for independent investigations into the federal oversight system for food production facilities in light of new revelations about chronic problems at the Peanut Corp. of America peanut-processing plant in Blakely, Georgia. Those calls are on target, and the matter deserves the attention of both the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.

Yesterday, officials from the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an expanded nationwide recall of products made from peanuts processed at the Georgia plant to include ingredients released as far back as January 2007. That expansion-which makes this recall one of the biggest in U.S. history-made sense, they said, as it has become clear that the company repeatedly failed to keep products off the market despite their having tested positive on several occasions for Salmonella, a bacteria that can cause food poisoning.

The toll to date: 501 people known to have been sickened in 43 states and in Canada. Of those, 108 hospitalized. And eight people so far believed to have died from having eaten the tainted products. All of the deaths have been people 59 years old or older. But fully half of the known cases of illness have been in children 16 years old or younger-a reflection of the prevalence of peanut butter and concentrated peanut paste in snack foods.

FDA and CDC are asking the right questions of the folks at Peanut Corp. And before long, so will lawyers for the victims. But there are equally important questions that independent investigators need to ask FDA and CDC, among them:

  • How is it that a company’s internal testing can repeatedly come up positive for a disease-causing microbe and yet that company can have no obligation to report those findings to anyone, ever-not even the FDA or state health officials when they come around periodically to see how things are going?
  • When the FDA subcontracts to state health departments its responsibility to inspect food processing plants, as it often does because of federal manpower shortages, how does the agency validate the professionalism and accuracy of those contracting departments?
  • Might there be a need to clarify, either in the regs or through legislation, a company’s responsibility to act on initial test results that indicate contamination-that is, to keep those products off the market-as opposed to retesting (as Peanut Corp. repeatedly did) until a negative result is obtained?
  • At what point are current FDA requirements that the agency keep sensitive information about companies confidential counterproductive to good manufacturing practices and to the public’s legitimate right to know?

As PeanutGate and the financial meltdown both exemplify, the regulatory philosophy in this country has historically been one that relies on the foxes to out themselves when they’ve indulged in malfeasance. Sure, everyone knows that too much oversight can stifle the flexibility that is key to ingenuity and innovation. But the pendulum has swung awfully far. Do we really have to wait until the fox gets caught with blood on its claws-and tainted peanut butter in its teeth-before we consumers get to find out what’s going on behind closed doors?

Image: flickr.com/dberlind

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