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Peanut Butter Salmonella Poisoning
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FDA knew of contamination tied to outbreaks

Apr 22, 2007 | Washington Post

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant and on California spinach farms that led to disease outbreaks that killed three people, sickened hundreds, and forced one of the biggest product recalls in U.S. history, documents and interviews show.

Overwhelmed by huge growth in the number of food processors and imports, however, the agency took only limited steps to address the problems and relied on producers to police themselves, the documents show.

Congressional critics and consumer advocates said both episodes show that the agency is incapable of protecting the safety of the food supply.

FDA officials conceded that its system needs to be overhauled but denied that the agency could have done anything to prevent either contamination episode because evidence of a truly dangerous situation was not apparent.

Meanwhile, the FDA last week notified California state health officials that hogs on a farm in the state had likely eaten feed laced with melamine, an industrial chemical blamed for the deaths of dozens of pets in recent weeks. Officials are trying to determine whether the chemical's presence in the hogs represents a threat to humans. Pork from animals raised on the farm has been recalled. The FDA has said its inspectors probably wouldn't have found the contaminated food if not for the massive pet food recall.

The outbreaks point to a need to completely overhaul the way the agency does business, said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's food safety arm, which is responsible for safeguarding 80 percent of the nation's food supply.

"We have 60,000 to 80,000 facilities that we're responsible for in any given year," Brackett said. Explosive growth in the number of processors and the amount of imported foods mean manufacturers "have to build safety into their products rather than us chasing after them," Brackett said. "We have to get out of the 1950s paradigm."

On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce committee will hold a hearing into the unprecedented spate of recalls, including the contamination of pet food with melamine.

"This administration does not like regulation, this administration does not like spending money, and it has a hostility toward government. The poisonous result is that a program like the FDA is going to suffer at every turn of the road," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the panel, who is considering legislation to boost the agency's accountability, regulatory authority and budget.

William Hubbard, who retired as associate FDA commissioner in 2005 and founded the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, said that in the 1970s, the FDA's food safety arm claimed half its budget and personnel.

"Now it's about a quarter at a time in which the problems have grown, the size of the industry has grown and imports of food have skyrocketed," Hubbard said.


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