WASHINGTON -- Fixing the nation's food safety woes may not be possible this year unless President Obama makes it a top priority, a senior lawmaker warned after a hearing Thursday exposed loopholes in government oversight that contributed to the ongoing national salmonella outbreak.
"I hope President Obama puts the weight of his office behind this," Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said. "It's going to require them to be actively pushing on this. This is a matter that we can't continue to put off."
The salmonella outbreak -- blamed on a company that produces only about 1 percent of the nation's peanut products -- has sickened at least 575 people in 43 states. At least eight have died. More than 1,300 foods that used ingredients from Peanut Corp. of America's peanut processing plant in Blakely, Ga., have been recalled. While the outbreak appears to be slowing down, new illnesses are still being reported.
As a precautionary measure, Kentucky stopped distributing FEMA emergency meal kits Thursday for victims of last week's ice storm after authorities warned that the meals may include packets of recalled peanut butter. No illnesses have been reported there.
Obama said earlier this week he's not satisfied with how the Food and Drug Administration is handling food safety and his administration is reviewing the agency's operations.
"Food safety is a top priority for the administration, and President Obama looks forward to working with Sen. Harkin and other members of Congress ... to make our food supply safer," White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said Thursday.
At a Senate hearing Thursday on the salmonella outbreak, lawmakers reacted angrily when told that food companies and state safety inspectors don't have to report to the FDA when test results find pathogens in a processing plant.
That leaves federal officials in the dark.
"I'd like to see some people go to jail," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. "A fine is a cost of doing business. When somebody thinks they're going to go to jail if they don't report something and clean it up, that's an entirely different matter."
Dr. Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA's food safety program, said companies are required to inform the FDA if they discover contamination after they've shipped a product, but not if the food is still at the plant. States forward reports on inspections they conduct for the FDA, but are not required to send inspections performed under their own laws.
"That's one of the very serious loopholes we need to plug," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
In the Peanut Corp. case, the company found salmonella in its products at least 12 times in the past two years. FDA officials say the company retested, got a negative reading and shipped the products. Peanut Corp. denies any wrongdoing, and says it has fully cooperated with the investigation. The government has opened a criminal probe.
Once an outbreak does occur, the government's investigation can be slow--at least for the Internet age.
For example, local doctors treating food poisoning victims can't just go to an official database to check to see whether their patients' problems could be part of a bigger pattern.
Sundlof defended the FDA's handling of the current outbreak, but also noted gaps in the system that hamper the agency's efforts. The FDA had to invoke bioterrorism laws to get lab tests from Peanut Corp.
"We would like to have as much information as possible" from food makers, Sundlof said.
Several lawmakers have introduced legislation to improve the food safety system.
Among the common elements of the bills are requiring all food facilities to have a written plan to prevent contamination, granting the FDA authority to order recalls, setting common standards for state and federal inspections, increasing the frequency of inspections and improving the tracing of foods implicated in an outbreak.
Sundlof told senators the FDA was hot on the trail of the Georgia facility even before agency investigators were certain that peanuts were to blame for hundreds of illnesses.
The first signs of the outbreak were detected in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But disease detectives initially were puzzled because some people who had gotten sick reported eating chicken, a common source of salmonella infections.
On Jan. 7 and 8, after discussions between federal and Minnesota authorities, the focus on peanut butter got stronger. On Jan. 8, the FDA visited an Ohio distributor for Peanut Corp. of America.
The next day federal inspectors were at the company's Blakely, Ga. facility, which ultimately was identified as the source of the food poisoning. That same day, Jan. 9, Minnesota health officials found salmonella in an open container of peanut butter made at the plant. On Jan. 10, Minnesota made a positive match to the salmonella strain that caused the outbreak.
Also Thursday, the Agriculture department suspended Peanut Corp. from participating in government contract programs for at least a year. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also removed Stewart Parnell, president of the company, from USDA's Peanut Standards Board.
The company's actions indicate that it "lacks business integrity and business honesty, which seriously and directly hinders its ability to do business with the federal government," said David Shipman, acting administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.
Peanut Corp. has said its Blakely plant had received regular visits and inspections from state and federal authorities in 2008 and had gotten a "superior" rating from an independent inspection.
On the Net:
The FDA's recall page: http://tinyurl.com/8srctw