We know there’s salmonella story fatigue setting in, but this new overview from yesterday’s Senate hearing is the best yet as far as piecing together exactly how salmonella-tainted peanut butter made it into our food supply for such a long period of time, and why it took so long to trace it back to a single rotten peanut plant in Georgia. Ultimately the blame lies with Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) for failing to maintain its factory and for not destroying lots that tested positive for salmonella, but both the FDA and the CDC had a role in it, too. One example: the FDA didn’t even know the plant produced peanut butter or peanut paste until 2007.
The Senate hearings yesterday were a sad reminder of the problems in our food safety system. Whether it was due to underfunding, understaffing, or bureaucratic mismanagement, the FDA hadn’t directly inspected the plant since 2001:
According to the FDA, it last inspected PCA’s Blakely plant in 2001, before the company started producing peanut butter. It relied on state inspectors to review the factory in 2006, 2007 and 2008 — and those inspections showed unsanitary practices the FDA later said were “somewhat resolved.”
“It was not until 2007, when the plant was inspected under FDA contract by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, that we recognized that in addition to just producing peanuts, they were producing peanut butter and peanut paste,” Dr. Steve Sundlof of the agency’s Food Safety and Applied Nutrition center told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday.
When federal officials obtained the company’s records, they discovered that 12 times in the past two years the company knowingly shipped products that initial tests showed were contaminated with salmonella.
PCA says further tests came back negative, which is why they shipped the products anyway, which seems to be the worst possible safety protocol to follow when it comes to the food supply (but a great one if you’re only minding the bottom line, we suppose).
Even if the FDA had known that PCA produced peanut butter and peanut paste, and that the products had at one time tested positive for salmonella, the agency can’t legally stop the company from shipping the product.
“The FDA does not have authority to force a manufacturer who’s producing contaminated food to recall it,” [former FDA associate commissioner William] Hubbard said. “They can beg them to, but they cannot order them to — and that’s a flaw in the system.”
And finally, the reason it took so long to trace the salmonella outbreak back to PCA was partly due to a lack of infrastructure that would allow doctors to aggregate data on patients in order to see trends. You’d think that by 2008, creating a database that can cross-reference patient variables and look for patterns would be a possibility, but when Senator Harkin asked a CDC official at yesterday’s hearing why this wasn’t the case, the official responded that there was no money to set up such a system.
FDA officials said they moved as fast as they could given the evidence they had. But Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s food-borne bacterial illness division, agreed the system is overly complicated, prone to delays and underfunded.
“The reality is that we have 50 different states, each with their own authorities, each with their own processes and each with their own budgets,” Tauxe said.
Surely the savings that would result from reduced sick leave and fewer hospital bills would justify improvements. Hey Google, maybe you can help? Bill and Melinda Gates? Got any extra foundation money? It would be nice to have an infrastructure that works.
Hubbard said the result is “an embarrassment” to a 21st-century nation — about 5,000 deaths a year from food poisoning, with another 325,000 hospitalized and tens of millions sickened, according to CDC figures.
“We are losing the equivalent of the World Trade Center attacks every eight months to food-borne illness,” Hubbard said.
“Vilsack Says Single Food-Inspection Agency Needed” [Bloomberg]