A BUZZFLASH NEWS ALERT
by Meg White
Not to be upstaged, Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) held up a container of recalled products wrapped in yellow crime scene tape, challenging a food company executive “more concerned about his company’s bottom line than food safety” to open it up and have a taste of the possibly poisoned food.
Perhaps Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) identified the drama best when he said, “This is like a bad movie and we’ve all read the script before… But this time there’s the possibility of criminal activity.”
In a hearing today before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce regarding the recent salmonella contamination of two peanut processing plants owned by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) — one in Georgia and the other in Texas — the systemic failure that left eight dead and hundreds sickened left plenty of room for blame.
First on everyone’s list was the company that produced the salmonella-laced peanut butter used in hundreds of products that have since been recalled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The company had gotten back several rounds of test results indicating their product was tainted, but decided to send the food out anyway.
Stewart Parnell, the company’s president, refused to answer any questions at the hearing that he was compelled by Congress to attend. He and his plant manager both utilized their rights under the Fifth Amendment to avoid all questions, including whether or not they had listened to victims’ testimony in an earlier panel.
Peter Hurley, whose three-year-old son Jacob was sickened after Hurley unwittingly fed the toddler contaminated Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter, told the subcommittee he thought the actions of PCA were “criminal.”
“The Peanut Corporation of America poisoned our son,” he said. “The issue was no longer what we did unknowingly, but what PCA did knowingly.”
E-mails between PCA executives obtained by the subcommittee revealed Parnell writing that he was more concerned about a recall “costing us huge $$$$$” than with food safety. The Justice Department has an ongoing investigation into the matter.
“I am horrified in seeing the projections of these very damning e-mails,” said Charles Deibel, president of one of the companies that tested PCA products for contaminants. His was the second company PCA went to; the processing company dumped the first after receiving too many positive salmonella results. “You cannot re-test away a positive result.”
The two testing companies were also grilled about why they don’t automatically submit positive test results to a governmental authority, which is not legally required but which some lawmakers said would have saved lives. Furthermore, Deibel’s company handled testing for the Texas PCA plant, which was operating without a license and without the knowledge of the FDA.
It wasn’t just the private sector that was singled out for criticism. Traces of salmonella were found last summer, yet at least one related death occurred as late as January 2009. There were 12 documented cases of salmonella contamination at PCA between June 2007 and September 2008.
One congressman noted that the Peter Pan/ConAgra salmonella poisoning happened with the same product in the same state less than two years ago. Another noted that Georgia’s Department of Agriculture inspected the Georgia PCA plant only one day after a sample from the plant there tested positive for salmonella, but the FDA (that ordered the state agriculture department to do the inspection) did not instruct inspectors to test for salmonella.
Stephen Sundlof, the director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA, conceded that some changes to inspection protocol would likely change as a result of the recent outbreak, specifically that peanut butter may be listed as a high-risk product, subject to more stringent controls. He added that more inspections and more reports would help the agency perform better.
“The FDA… wants all the information we can get,” he said.
Some lawmakers hinted that the FDA does not seem willing to accept more authority over food safety. Subcommittee Chair Bart Stupak (D-MI) said that in order to have more access to companies’ files, the FDA’s powers would have to be expanded in court whether they like it or not.
“I’ve been trying to get them subpoena power for 12 years, but the FDA says they don’t need subpoena power,” he said.
Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) was frustrated by Sundlof’s reasons for not catching the salmonella outbreak earlier.
“Either you don’t have the resources or you’re incompetent,” he said.
Sundlof replied that the problem was the former, not the latter. Indeed, the FDA has suffered funding and manpower shortages consistently over the past few years.
“The FDA under the Bush Administration failed to take the steps necessary to ensure the safety of our food supply,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA).
Rep. Burgess noted that part of the problem lies in Congress’ hands.
“We need to fund them better,” he said. “We’ll make our actions meet our rhetoric.”
Representatives had more ideas for reform than simply funding the agency more adequately. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) said she wanted to give the FDA mandatory recall authority, which would mean the agency would no longer have to ask companies to voluntarily recall their products when a problem is found. She has also introduced legislation that would help trace outbreaks of this kind back to their source.
“We’re going to do this,” she said, adding that she hoped to accomplish much of it before the end of the year, if not sooner. “We could do my mandatory recall bill on the suspension calendar next week.”
Lou Tousignant, whose father died last month after eating contaminated peanut butter, begged the subcommittee to “please, do your job.”
“Why does the FDA not already have this authority?” he asked. “We have to be able to eat. This is just as important as the economy right now.”
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ALERT