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Families struck by E. coli demand better monitoring

Apr 25, 2007 | AP Families victimized by tainted spinach and peanut butter Tuesday urged lawmakers to strengthen federal oversight of the nation's food supply. "I can't protect them from spinach only you guys can," said Michael Armstrong, as he and wife, Elizabeth, cradled daughters Ashley, 2, and Isabella, 5. The girls fell ill, Ashley gravely in September after eating a salad made with a triple-washed bag of spinach contaminated by E. coli.

That and other incidents of contamination have raised questions not only about the U.S. food supply but also efforts by the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies to keep it safe.

"I hope these hearings will help alert the American people, Congress and the administration to the seriousness of this issue. If it is not taken seriously, these kinds of poisonings can, and will, happen again. Food poisonings will happen to you, to me and to our children and our pets," said Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

Also testifying was Gary Pruden, joined by his 11-year-old son, Sean, who was seriously sickened in November by E. coli after eating at a Taco Bell restaurant. Pruden said a key element of trade and commerce is trust - whether placed in accountants, airline pilots or auto mechanics.

"That is also extended to the trust in the food we order or buy from the grocery store - that it's edible and safe. Without that trust, commerce cannot work. And where failure occurs, oversight is required," Pruden told the subcommittee.

The safety of food raised domestically was questioned anew last fall when officials traced a nationwide E. coli outbreak to contaminated spinach processed by Natural Selection Foods LLC. Three people died and nearly 200 others were sickened. More recently, contaminated peanut butter and pet food have been recalled.

"I don't see the latest string of incidents as aberrations. It's become a systemic problem and it calls for systemic solutions," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.

DeGette has introduced legislation that would give the FDA and Agriculture Department the authority to mandate recalls, in line with a proposal by the Government Accountability Office. Other legislative efforts include proposals to create a single Food Safety Administration and develop a uniform reporting system to track contaminated food.

The Peter Pan brand of peanut butter was the subject of a nationwide recall in February after a salmonella outbreak. More than 400 people were sickened, and the recall cost manufacturer ConAgra Foods Inc. $50 million to $60 million.

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