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Mandatory testing and reporting in FDA overhaul

February 11, 2009

In Wake of Congressional Hearing on Peanut Butter and Salmonella, Consumers Union Urges Mandatory Testing, Reporting and Annual Inspections in FDA Overhaul

Yonkers, NY—In response to Stewart Parnell, CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America’s (PCA) repeated invocations of his right not to incriminate himself under the Fifth Amendment at today’s Congressional hearing on the nationwide outbreak of salmonella in peanut products, Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, called on Congress to increase penalties against companies that ship adulterated food and to overhaul food safety laws so problems like this do not recur.
Documents made public Wednesday by the investigations subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee show that the company stopped using a private laboratory because too many tests done there showed contamination. Parnell complained in e-mail messages to the plant manager in Blakely, Ga., Sam Lightsey, that the positive salmonella tests were “costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice.”
“This outbreak caused by PCA is the latest and one of the most deadly food poisoning incidents we have faced as a nation in the last several years. Companies like PCA are more concerned about the bottom line than the public health, and cannot be trusted to provide safe food to consumers without supervision,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union. “However FDA is currently not up to the task. Congress must give FDA mandatory recall authority, and guarantee that the FDA will visit every food processor at least once a year.”
Consumers Union calls on Congress to require FDA to conduct annual inspections of food processing facilities, require processors like PCA to test for contaminants like salmonella, require these companies to disclose when their own tests find tainted products, and to increase fines and penalties against those who ship contaminated products.
In light of testimony at the hearing highlighting that all food recalls are voluntary, and that recalls from companies who used PCA’s output in their products are still being announced, 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.
CU and other leading consumer organizations, including Consumer Federation of America, and Center for Science in the Public Interest, as well as the Pew Charitable Trusts, also support creating a single food safety agency. While FDA is responsible for the safety of produce, seafood and most processed food, USDA is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry. A single food agency could be much more efficient and effective, the groups believe. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has stated that he supports the idea of a single food safety agency.
There are several proposals to reform and modernize the way FDA regulates food safety pending in Congress, including a bill introduced by Reps. Dingell, Stupak, and Pallone, a bill introduced by Rep. DeLauro, and a proposal being drafted by Sen. Durbin.
“The FDA has been severely weakened by cutbacks in staffing and funding, and is poorly equipped to deal with today’s food industry, with its mass production and distribution systems and global sourcing of ingredients. The first step in overhauling the FDA should be requiring that processing plants like PCA are inspected every year,” said Halloran. “Congress should require every food producer in the United States to register and pay a registration fee that will fund annual inspections,” she added.
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.
President Obama recently called for a comprehensive review of the FDA in the wake of the peanut butter recalls. Halloran said, “The President’s review and appointment of a new FDA Commissioner who is independent of industry has the potential to greatly 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 power and resources it desperately needs.”
“Members of Congress have pledged reforms to the nation’s food protection system. We hope those changes come quickly,” Halloran concluded.
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