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Peanut butter recall likely to push FDA food-safety reforms

by Joan Murphy | February 10, 2009
WASHINGTON -- What does a peanut butter plant in Georgia have in common with fruit and vegetable producers? Not much until the peanut butter plant becomes the focus of one of the larger food recalls in history and fuels calls for new legislation to tighten food-safety regulations for the entire food industry.

At least 550 people in 43 states and Canada have been infected with Salmonella Typhimurium, and at least eight deaths may be attributed to the outbreak, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. More than 800 products made with peanut butter, peanut paste and other ingredients manufactured at the Peanut Corp. of America's Blakely, GA, plant have been recalled since January.

As the Salmonella outbreak drags on and more recalls are announced, consumer advocates are pointing to the outbreak as another reason for Congress to strengthen food regulation.

And after President Barack Obama told Today Show anchor Matt Lauer that he has ordered a complete review of the Food & Drug Administration in the wake of the recall, it is bound to have repercussions.

"Well, I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect [them to be caught]," President Obama said during the Feb. 2 interview. "And so we are going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations."

The produce industry is watching developments closely. "We need a better process within FDA to get to the root of these problems more quickly," said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland. "Just because it's peanut butter, that doesn't mean it won't impact fruits and vegetables."

Food safety was expected to come up later in the new Congress, but now two congressional committees have scheduled oversight hearings on the peanut butter recall for this month.

Questions are being raised about the frequency of FDA inspections -- after records showed that the federal agency had not visited the plant since 2001 - - and about the quality of Georgia's subsequent inspections of the peanut butter plant.

The agency's inability to access the company's internal testing records during routine inspections is also becoming an issue. Using its authority under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, FDA discovered that the peanut butter manufacturer detected Salmonella on samples on 12 different occasions but had them retested and later shipped. Georgia inspectors could not access those records during routine inspections, and now consumer advocates say that the FDA should have access to internal testing records in the future.

The outbreak also is bound to have an effect on the announcement of a new FDA commissioner, as a White House spokesperson said Jan. 30 that the administration would be nominating a commissioner very soon.