February 2, 2009
Says Obama Call for FDA Review “Good News” for Consumers
Yonkers, N.Y.–President Obama’s call today for a top-to-bottom review of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is good news for consumers, according to Consumers Union (CU), the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. CU said the recall of two years’ worth of production from a peanut butter factory in Georgia underlines critical weaknesses in the FDA’s inspection and enforcement capacity. CU called on Congress to require FDA to inspect such factories annually.
“The FDA is supposed to be a watchdog for consumers, and for too long, this agency has been coming up short,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union. “The FDA has been so severely weakened by cutbacks in staffing and funding, and is so poorly equipped to deal with today’s food industry, with its mass production and distribution systems and global sourcing of ingredients, that it can no longer keep food safe. The first step in overhauling the FDA should be requiring that processing plants are inspected every year,” said Halloran.
“President Obama’s review and his appointment of a new FDA Commissioner will definitely improve FDA’s use of its existing resources and authority. However, Congress must also act soon to modernize the agency and give it the additional resources and authority it desperately needs,” Halloran said.
“FDA was almost completely unaware of the problems at Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), despite the fact that problems had existed for some time, and that salmonella contaminated peanut butter at another Georgia factory just two years ago,” Halloran added. “Unfortunately, this is not surprising. FDA inspects U.S. food production facilities only about once every ten years on average.”
A recent Consumers Union poll found that two-thirds of Americans want the FDA to inspect domestic and foreign food-processing facilities at least once a month.
FDA last visited PCA’s plant in 2001, at which time PCA was only roasting peanuts. FDA admitted on January 30 that it did not even know the plant had started making peanut butter until 2008, when some of its output was turned back at the Canadian border because it contained metal fragments. As a result, FDA failed to inspect the PCA plant until January 2009, even though it had inspected other producers in the wake of the 2007 Georgia ConAgra salmonella peanut butter disease outbreak.
“Oversight of PCA was contracted out to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which conducted a number of inspections. But there is little evidence that FDA was aware of repeated findings of unsanitary conditions at the plant,” Halloran stated.
CU says more basic reform will require Congressional action. “Congress should require FDA to inspect every food producer in the United States at least once a year, and provide funding through registration fees for this work,” said Halloran. “Congress must give FDA mandatory recall authority, and require companies to disclose the retail stores, schools and nursing homes that get recalled products. And if a company finds an adulterant like salmonella in its own testing, Congress should require that it inform FDA and explain how it disposed of the product,” Halloran added.
Prompted by the 8 deaths and more than 500 illnesses attributed to salmonella in peanut butter produced by PCA, and by the fact that the company apparently shipped product that it knew to be contaminated, Congress has begun considering FDA reform legislation. Representatives John Dingell, Bart Stupak, and Frank Pallone introduced a bill on January 28, and Representative Rosa DeLauro is expected to introduce another bill this week. Senator Durbin is also developing a bill expected to be introduced soon.
Consumers Union advises consumers not to eat products containing peanut ingredients like crackers or cookies, unless consumers check with the manufacturer and make sure that none of it comes from PCA.
Naomi Starkman, Consumers Union, 917. 539.3924
Jean Halloran, Consumers Union, 914.378.2457