Over the past several months, particularly during the past presidential campaign, we’ve heard calls for a complete revamp of the way this country approaches food safety. Underfunded and multitasked to the max, the agency has had to juggle several balls simultaneously in safeguarding the nation’s food supplies while regulating drugs.
The most recent Salmonella outbreak, tied to peanut butter and peanut paste produced at the Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, Ga. facility, has re-ignited the debate that could very well spur substantial reform by Congress.
It’s about time. And no, this isn’t the typical “bureaucratic bumbling” argument so often thrown about by politicians for partisan purposes. Like the vast majority of employees working in the public and private sector, folks working at the FDA are intent on doing a good job.
Nevertheless, the complexity of that job, complicated by the need to protect our food chain from possible terrorist threats, has vastly increased the work load over the past decade. During that time, the emergence of “mad cow” disease, the Avian bird flu, lead content in candies and various outbreaks of Salmonella have taxed the limits of the agency, forcing it to rely on voluntary recalls as a means of enforcing food safety.
PCA’s plight provides a lightning rod example of how lax enforcement can spiral into a national crisis. What appeared at first as an isolated recall has now emerged as a consistent pattern of questionable manufacturing practices going back several years.
According to Bloomberg.com, during the last two years, PCA shipped peanut butter products to customers despite tests that on 12 occasions showed Salmonella was present according to U.S. health officials.
After getting the results, the company contracted with other laboratories to conduct new tests, which then found the peanut products negative for Salmonella, and continued sending products to customers, Michael Rogers, director of the division of field investigations of FDA, said.
“There were no steps taken” by the firm to reduce contamination at the time, Rogers added.
Other reports stemming from the investigation also revealed that Canadian authorities rejected peanut butter shipments from PCA this past year, but no further follow-up was taken by the FDA even after the agency was informed about those shipments.
As a result, President Obama is calling for “a complete review of FDA operations,” he said in a recent interview on NBC’s “Today” show.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest was one of the first to resurrect the call to dismantle the agency, separating drug regulation from food safety.
Recently appointed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the United States needs to update its food safety system first before any agency reorganization. Given that this debate has resurfaced because of PCA’s alleged incompetence and subterfuge, is the company solely to blame or could the FDA have prevented this outbreak?
Not removing any culpability from PCA – I understand there are calls from Congress wanting to initiate criminal prosecution – it appears that the FDA must also accept responsibility for not doing its job.
And again, it’s probably because it’s virtually impossible to do so with the way the agency is structured.
Democrats in the House of Representatives have already introduced a bill to increase government inspections of food and drug manufacturing plants. Under the bill, food producers and drug makers would be required to pay fees to enable the FDA to carry out more frequent plant inspections. The measure also would give the FDA added authority, including the power to order mandatory recalls of tainted foods or unsafe medicines.
From my perspective, that doesn’t fix the problem. A band-aid won’t prevent this open wound from being infected again. The patient requires a complete check up.