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The Peanut Butter Recall and Our Broken Food Safety System

vending machine with peanut butter recall notice on it SOURCE: SP Part of the problem behind the recent spread of Salmonella-infected peanut paste products is a disastrously underfunded FDA.

Who knew that peanut paste was such a popular commodity? A peanut butter concentrate made from smooshed roasted peanuts, it’s in a huge array of products including cookie batter, candies, ice cream, and those orange-colored vending-machine crackers. Tons of the stuff gets shipped around the country in tanker trucks. And alas, as the nation has recently learned, the golden goo can harbor dangerously high doses of Salmonella bacteria when produced in unsanitary conditions.

Weiss’s Notebook

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss covered science and medicine for The Washington Post for 15 years, and now he brings his investigative eye to science policy. From cloning and stem cells to agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology, Weiss examines the issues at the intersection of cutting edge research and public policy.

As of last week, about 500 people were known to have been seriously sickened by eating Salmonella-tainted peanut paste (and in some cases, peanut butter), all of it produced during the past few months at a single Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Georgia. What’s impressive about this outbreak is that those victims are dispersed among 43 states, and they collectively got their illnesses from having eaten one or more of 135 or so different products, all of which contained peanut paste or peanut butter from the same Peanut Corp. plant.

What a vivid example of our intensively centralized food production and distribution system! A small-town Georgia processing plant, soiled with fecal bacteria from an unknown source, sickens hundreds of consumers across the country-and probably thousands more who wrote off their bouts of diarrhea and vomiting as one of those “facts of life” and so went untallied by health authorities.

The most mundane truth behind these events is that the agencies we depend on to oversee food safety in this country are underfinanced and understaffed.

This is but the latest in a string of tainted food scandals that have gripped the nation in the past couple of years, including ones involving toxic melamine in pet food and baby formula and Salmonella in peanut butter and on sprouts, spinach, tomatoes, and peppers. What to make of it all?

The most mundane truth behind these events is that the agencies we depend on to oversee food safety in this country are underfinanced and understaffed. As documented in Change for America, the progressive blueprint recently released by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, those responsibilities fall mostly on the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration-but primarily the FDA, even though it enjoys a far smaller food-related budget than does USDA.

Years of stale budgets for the chronically cash-strapped agency have led to the departure of about 1,000 FDA scientists in the past few years, even as Congress enacted about 125 statutes that demand additional agency resources. Nearly half of the FDA’s managers and supervisors are old enough to retire within the next five years. And staffing at the agency’s Center for Food Safety has declined 20 percent over the past three years. A new food protection plan, released more than a year ago, remains unfunded.

It would be naive to believe that these realities did not contribute to the fact that, either unnoticed or undaunted by federal or state overseers, Peanut Corp. has apparently been producing Salmonella-tainted products since July 2008, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention retrospective, still being constructed by government epidemiologists. It’s still not clear who, if anyone, was aware of that problem back then. The FDA inspected the plant last year and found failings, but details have not been disclosed. Months later Georgia state authorities inspected it again at FDA’s request. What triggered that request, and exactly what was found, is still a secret.

Beyond the fact that the nation’s food-plant inspection and follow-up process is not sufficiently aggressive, the peanut-paste outbreak has brought other shortcomings into focus.

For one, the FDA still lacks the legal authority to recall tainted foods, despite repeated calls for Congress to grant this important power. Instead FDA must cajole offending companies, and allow them to arrange such actions on their own terms, which often means slowly and one product at a time even as overwhelming evidence of trouble accumulates. Delays can matter: at least six people are so far suspected of having been killed by the bacteria in this outbreak.

Equally troubling is what the FDA and CDC have had to go through to figure out where tainted paste may have been shipped and which products it ended up in. I am on an FDA listserve that alerts subscribers every time a food is recalled, and the pace of Peanut Paste-gate has been enlightening.

On January 17th, for example, it was Kellogg recalling its peanut butter sandwich crackers and Famous Amos and Keebler Soft Batch Peanut Butter Cookies; Hy-Vee Inc. recalling its Monster and Reese’s Pieces cookies and its People Chow Party Mix and Assorted Truffle Fudge; and Perry’s Ice Cream Co. recalling its Select Peanut Butter Ice Cream. On January 18th McKee Foods recalled its Little Debbie Peanut Butter Toasty and Peanut Butter Cheese Sandwich Crackers, and South Bend Chocolate Co. recalled some of its candies. On the 19th it was Kroger Select Ice Cream Products; various ZonePerfect health and energy bars; and cookies made under the Wal-Mart, Food Lion, Lofthouse, Chuck’s, Meijer’s and Pastries Plus brands (not to mention a recall of “uneviscerated mackerel fish,” apparently unrelated, though who knows what was going on in the back rooms of that Blakely peanut processing facility?).

Day after day the news has continued to trickle out, like a bad case of the runs (egads, not the PetSmart “Great Choice” Dog Biscuits too!). The problem is that Peanut Corp. and federal and state regulators have had to shuffle through countless invoices going back many months, and each suspect company has had to confirm that information using its own (often incompatible) computer and bookkeeping system. Isn’t it time for a unified, interoperable software program for use by all FDA-regulated entities that would allow this kind of information to be called up quickly by health authorities in situations such as this? Wouldn’t that be useful if some bioterrorist were to slip a nasty bug into a distribution hub for baby carrots or hamburger patties or bottled water?

While we’re at it, might it be time to take seriously what so many expert groups (and some in Congress) have been saying for a long time, namely that food safety is too important to be a stepchild of an agency that is primarily concerned with the pharmaceutical industry? Let’s face it: The current system is nuts.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.

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