The more investigators look into the latest food-safety scandal involving the Peanut Corporation of America, the worse it gets. It now appears that as many as nine people have died and 19,000 have been sickened after eating cookies, crackers or institutional peanut butter tainted with salmonella from a plant in Georgia owned by the company.
At a charged Congressional hearing last week, company executives refused to answer questions on the advice of their attorneys, but the questions told much of the story. “The food poisoning of people — is that just a cost of doing business?” one congressman asked. When another angrily asked the company’s president if he would like to try some of the recalled products, he refused.
The company is facing a criminal inquiry and has now filed for bankruptcy court protection. But it would be a mistake to view this as “an unconscionable act by one manufacturer,” as an official from the American Peanut Council, the industry’s trade association, said.
While most successful food producers are far more diligent — big name-brand peanut butter is considered safe, for example — American consumers have faced far too many food-supply emergencies in the last few years. Congress and the Obama administration must finally make food safety a serious priority.
The new agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, is talking about creating “a modern, unified food-safety agency capable of reducing the risk of food-borne illness.” Many thoughtful food-safety experts have been calling for such an approach for years. Today’s patchwork system requires frozen pizzas to be inspected by two agencies: one if they’re cheese and another if they’re pepperoni.
A one-stop agency could take time in Washington. Until then, Mr. Vilsack should look at ways to strengthen current federal and state systems for avoiding food hazards. Congress needs to find more money for inspectors, especially at the Food and Drug Administration.
The F.D.A. also should have the authority to recall tainted food quickly, establish strict federal standards on cleanliness and create an advanced system for tracking foods so that any tainted products can be culled from the food supply more quickly. Finally, Congress should require a more efficient way to test food products and give government food inspectors the authority to review those results more easily.
What was particularly galling about the latest recall was how federal inspectors had to threaten to use anti-terrorism laws to finally gain access to the Peanut Corporation of America’s testing reports. Those reports showed how samples were re-tested if they were contaminated and how some products were shipped even before the tests showing salmonella had come in.
President Obama promised during the campaign to create a government that does a better job of protecting the American consumer. The nation’s vulnerable food supply is a healthy place to start.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Food safety in America
I turn my blog over today to the lead editorial in the New York Times today, an excellent commentary on the issue of food safety.