Georgia inspectors, contracted by FDA, dropped the ball on peanut plant

Articles
February 11, 2009

Georgia inspectors, contracted by FDA, dropped the ball on peanut plant

Federal frugality has its price – and it is America’s sickened (or worse) consumers that pay the awful tab when food safety is compromised. An ugly truth about plant inspections came to light with the latest salmonella contamination of processed peanut products at Peanut Corp. of America, Blakely, GA, which has led to 575 illnesses and eight or more deaths so far: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relied on state investigators to perform more than half of its food inspections in 2007, according to an Associated Press analysis of FDA data. “That represents a dramatic rise from a decade ago, when FDA investigators performed three out of four federal inspections. The problem is that spending increases haven’t kept up with inspection responsibilities at the state level. Though FDA does cover some of the costs for states to inspect plants, AP reported that food safety spending rose only slightly since 2003 in states with the largest numbers of food-processing plants—Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts. In Georgia, FDA relied on the state to inspect the culprit plant between 2006 and 2008. “But Georgia failed to identify problems, even as the company’s own internal testing repeatedly found salmonella in its products and Canada rejected a shipment of its peanuts because of metal contamination,” AP said.

Federal frugality has its price – and it is America’s sickened (or worse) consumers that pay the awful tab when food safety is compromised.

An ugly truth about plant inspections came to light with the latest salmonella contamination of processed peanut products at Peanut Corp. of America, Blakely, GA, which has led to 575 illnesses and eight or more deaths so far:  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) relied on state investigators to perform more than half of its food inspections in 2007, according to an Associated Press analysis of FDA data. “That represents a dramatic rise from a decade ago, when FDA investigators performed three out of four federal inspections.

The problem is that spending increases haven’t kept up with inspection responsibilities at the state level. Though FDA does cover some of the costs for states to inspect plants, AP reported that food safety spending rose only slightly since 2003 in states with the largest numbers of food-processing plants—Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, California and Massachusetts. 

In Georgia, FDA relied on the state to inspect the culprit plant between 2006 and 2008. “But Georgia failed to identify problems, even as the company’s own internal testing repeatedly found salmonella in its products and Canada rejected a shipment of its peanuts because of metal contamination,” AP said.

Former FDA deputy commissioner Michael Taylor, a proponent of FDA contracting inspections to states, has nevertheless urged an overhaul of federal and state food safety, AP noted.

“To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit,” Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, told AP. “Food safety in America has become a hit or miss gamble, and that is truly frightening.  It’s time to find the gaps in the system and remedy them.”

Gaps are substantial. Between 2003 and 2007, FDA lost more than 400 federal field food inspectors, its budget revealed. At the same time, the number of businesses requiring oversight increased by 7,200, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

This AP report is valuable in demonstrating yet one more aspect of the incredible strain under which FDA and USDA operate to try to protect the nation’s food pipeline. SupermarketGuru.com sees too many potential entry points for dangerous food to enter the distribution system, from either domestic or international sources. This, in our opinion, precludes any funding excuses by the federal and state agencies charged with keeping us safe.  Safety has to be the priority, not just an umbrella term. Consumer confidence is rightfully shaken, and bold action on Capitol Hill may be the only cure.