- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The federal government should have the authority to order companies to carry out food recalls, Congress’ investigative arm said yesterday.

The new Democratic Congress is simmering over the Food and Drug Administration’s lack of food-safety oversight during the past year’s E. coli and salmonella outbreaks that resulted in deaths and caused thousands of illnesses.

The two primary agencies responsible for the safety of the food supply, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA, can issue calls for food recalls but, by law, those recalls are voluntary.

“At the time of our review, these agencies did not know how promptly and completely companies were carrying out recalls, did not promptly verify that recalls had reached all segments of the distribution chain, and used procedures that may not have been effective to alert consumers to a recall,” said Lisa Shames, acting director of Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office.

The FDA said yesterday that thousands of U.S. hogs might be affected by the agency’s investigation of livestock feed contaminated with melamine, the deadly chemical recently found in pet-food products.

Ms. Shames testified yesterday before a congressional subcommittee concerned about the spate of food-contamination outbreaks. She reiterated a call by the GAO for legislation granting the USDA and the FDA similar recall authority to that of other government agencies, such as those that regulate the safety of toys and automobiles.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, for example, can fine a company almost $2 million if it does not inform the commission immediately about an unsafe product.

In September, three women died and more than200 people fell ill after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli, which federal investigators later traced to bags sold by Natural Selection Foods in California.

In February, Peter Pan peanut butter, made by ConAgra Foods Inc., was found to contain salmonella.

At about the same time, a massive pet-food recall took place after pets began to die from wheat gluten imported from China that contained melamine, a chemical used to enhance protein amounts in pet-food products.

Now the nation’s hogs are at risk. Livestock feed that may have been contaminated with melamine was sent to hog farms in North Carolina, South Carolina, California, New York, Utah and possibly Ohio, said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Representatives of the food companies apologized to Congress yesterday and assured the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee it would not happen again. But lawmakers are angry federal agencies were not able to prevent the outbreaks.

“What has the FDA done to prevent food-borne illness? It appears the FDA has decided to centralize food-safety decision-making in Washington, D.C., cut back on inspections, and hope that food producers and manufactures will self police their industry based on voluntary guidelines,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat andchairman of the panel.

In the case of Peter Pan, salmonella was found in the peanut butter in 2004, but the company did not report it to the FDA, despite an agency request for information. Mr. Stupak criticized the FDA — which was not asked to testify before the committee yesterday — for not aggressively pursuing reports of salmonella contamination in the peanut butter. ConAgra has 100 manufacturing facilities in 30 states and produces other popular brands such as Chef Boyardee and Healthy Choice.

Mr. Stupak said he will hold another hearing next month and intends to call on FDA officials to testify.

The GAO has added the federal oversight of food safety to its list of high-risk programs needing “urgent attention and transformation.”

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