WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal health officials are defending their handling of a salmonella outbreak that has killed at least eight people, telling Congress they had been hot on the trail of a peanut processor even before they were certain that peanuts to blame for hundreds of illnesses.
The Food and Drug Administration “began its investigation prior to having a strong epidemiological link to a particular food,” Stephen Sundlof, head of the agency’s food safety center, said in testimony prepared for delivery to the Senate Agriculture Committee.
More than 500 people have been sickened as a result of the outbreak, and at least eight may have died because of salmonella infections. More than 430 products have been pulled off the shelves in a recall that reaches to Canada and Europe.
The first signs of the outbreak were detected in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But disease detectives initially suspected chicken was the culprit in clusters of salmonella infections.
On Jan. 7 and 8, after discussions between federal and Minnesota authorities, peanut butter was added to the short list of suspects when some people who had gotten sick reported eating peanut butter in nursing homes and at an elementary school. On Jan. 8, the FDA visited an Ohio
distributor for Peanut Corp. of America.
The next day federal inspectors were at the company’s Blakely, Georgia, facility, which ultimately was identified as the source of the food poisoning. That same day, Jan. 9, Minnesota health officials found salmonella in an open container of peanut butter made at the plant. On Jan. 10,
Minnesota made a positive match to the salmonella strain that caused the outbreak.
Lawmakers, however, may not be reassured. They are concerned about the state of the food safety system. As the list of recalled items containing peanut products surpasses 1,000, lawmakers are vowing to press for stronger food safety laws and more money for inspections.
“To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit. It is a hit or miss gamble, and that is truly frightening,” said Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat. “It’s time to find the gaps in the system and remedy them.”
The Peanut Corp., which produces a tiny share of U.S. peanut products, is being blamed. Authorities say the facility shipped peanut butter, paste and other products that had tested positive for salmonella. The company retested, got a negative reading, and shipped the products.
A criminal investigation is under way. The company has denied any wrongdoing and said Wednesday that its Blakely plant had received regular visits and inspections from state and federal authorities in 2008 and had gotten a “superior” rating from an independent inspection.
As the list of recall list grows, Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan said it’s a textbook example of an ingredient-driven outbreak.
“The event illustrates how a large and widespread outbreak can occur from distribution of a single item to hundreds of foods,” Khan said in his prepared testimony.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are dusting off food safety legislation that went nowhere under administration of former President George W. Bush and are hoping for better luck under President Barack Obama, who has criticized the FDA’s handling of the outbreak.
But it remains unclear whether Congress can deliver major improvements in food safety this year, given the press of critical issues such as the shaky economy and a ballooning federal deficit.
All the reform proposals would give the FDA authority to order recalls, which are now voluntary.
Reformers also agree that food processing plants should be required to have a safety plan and document their compliance. And there is widespread agreement that standards for imported foods must be upgraded.
For more information, click on the FDA’s recall page.