March 19, 2009
Yonkers, N.Y.—The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing today on the role of industry in protecting the nation’s food supply underscores the need for regular, comprehensive food inspections, according to Consumers Union (CU), nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. CU urges Congress to overhaul the nation’s food safety laws and to mandate annual inspections of food processing facilities.
“All food companies need to be extremely diligent about their suppliers and their safety practices. Hundreds of consumers became severely ill, and nine died, as a result of failures of companies all the way down the line to insure that their products were wholesome and safe,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for CU. “However, government oversight is the bedrock of food safety. We’re pleased that Kellogg’s CEO is expected to support a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandate to inspect every food processing facility at least once a year.”
In response to the recent salmonella outbreak in peanut butter products, several owners of companies that purchased the output of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) will be called as witnesses, including: Martin Kanan, president and CEO of the King Nut Company; David Mackay, CEO of the Kellogg Company; and Heather Isely, co-owner of Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets, Inc. A large number of the recent peanut-related cases of salmonella poisoning have been traced to the Austin and Keebler brand crackers manufactured by Kellogg, and to King Nut brand peanut butter that went to certain healthcare facilities. Both purchased peanut products from the PCA plant in Blakely, Georgia. Vitamin Cottage sold tainted peanut products that came from PCA’s plant in Plainview, Texas.
At last month’s Congressional hearing, PCA owner Stewart Parnell invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions posed by angry lawmakers. He is the subject of a criminal investigation, and his company, facing lawsuits by families of salmonella victims, filed for bankruptcy on February 13.
The FDA last inspected PCA in 2001; when it returned in January 2009 in response to the crisis, it found, among other health hazards, salmonella on plant surfaces, peanuts stored under water leaks, and dead roaches.
A recent New York Times investigative story shows how the job of monitoring food plants has, in large part, fallen to private auditors. For example, in the PCA situation, Kellogg relied on a private inspector to protect it from contaminated products. However, according to the account of one PCA employee, reported in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, PCA, which had hired the auditor, knew in advance that this auditor was coming and cleaned up for the inspection.
“Companies cannot rely on pre-announced, private third-party certification visits paid for by the vendor,” said Halloran. “Had there been better and more independent federal government oversight in place, businesses could have better protected themselves and consumers from this deadly outbreak.”
To date, more than 3,000 diverse products have been recalled—the largest number ever in the U.S.—and nine deaths have been linked to the outbreak. Close to 700 people are known to have fallen sick, but the actual number could be much higher, as in general only about 3 percent of salmonella cases are reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
CU also praises President Barack Obama’s recent appointments of a new FDA commissioner and deputy commissioner and announcement of the creation of a Food Safety Working Group.
“President Obama’s appointment of a new FDA commissioner will definitely improve the agency’s use of its existing resources and authority, and the Food Safety Working group should help foster coordination across federal agencies and ensure that laws are enforced,” said Halloran. “Congress must also act soon to modernize FDA and give it the additional resources and authority it desperately needs.”
CU supports a number of bills introduced in Congress to upgrade the nation’s food safety system.
Jean Halloran, 914.378.2457
Naomi Starkman, 917.539.3924 (cell)