business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Washington Post this morning reports in a front-page story that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant and on California spinach farms that led to disease outbreaks that killed three people, sickened hundreds, and forced one of the biggest product recalls in U.S. history.” However, “overwhelmed by huge growth in the number of food processors and imports…the agency took only limited steps to address the problems and relied on producers to police themselves.”

According to the Post story, “FDA officials conceded that the agency's system needs to be overhauled to meet today's demands, but contended that the agency could not have done anything to prevent either contamination episode.”

Consumer advocates, on the other hand, disagree – and say that this proves that as it presently is structured, staffed and empowered, the FDA is incapable of adequately protecting the food supply.

Robert E. Brackett, director of the FDA's food-safety arm, tells the Post that manufacturers “have to build safety into their products rather than us chasing after them…We have to get out of the 1950s paradigm." He also tells the paper that FDA has been unable to keep up with the demands placed upon it by the up to 80,000 facilities that it is responsible for annually.

Explanations and excuses may not be good enough for Congress, which is expected to hold hearings into the food safety lapses beginning this week and could consider legislation that would increase funding and oversight of FDA. Rep. John A. Dingell (D-Michigan) blames at least some of the problems on the Bush White House, saying, “This administration does not like regulation, this administration does not like spending money, and it has a hostility toward government. The poisonous result is that a program like the FDA is going to suffer at every turn of the road."

In the case of the peanut butter-related salmonella outbreak, the Post reports, “an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up. A salmonella outbreak that began last August and was traced to the plant's Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter brands sickened more than 400 people in 44 states.”

Brackett tells the Post that “if the FDA inspector had seen anything truly dangerous the agency would have taken further action. But, he said, the agency cannot force a disclosure, a recall or a plant closure except in extreme circumstances, such as finding a hazardous batch of product.”
KC's View:
Gee, more than 400 people ended up getting sick, and the FDA didn’t consider what it saw at the Georgia plant to be “truly dangerous.” Makes us wonder what exactly would qualify…

Seems to us that the structure is broken and the priorities are out of whack. It is time for a change to the way that food safety is prioritized in this country, and that probably means some sort of complete revamp of the governmental systems on which we all depend.

We believe that retailers should get behind this issue in full force. Because while the problems seem to be mostly related to manufacturers, every food item that sickens a consumer whittles away at the industry’s larger credibility and affects the total food business.