Pres. Obama says he's ordering a “complete review” of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after state and federal inspectors failed to detect and crack down on a Georgia plant that knowingly sent out tainted peanut butter products that have sickened 529 people in 43 states and may have killed eight.
The oversight is only the most recent of “instances over the last several years” in which “the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch,” Obama told the Today Show this morning. “At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter.”
Obama hopes to select his FDA commissioner "in the next few days," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a press briefing Friday. Without elaborating, Gibbs added that the president would implement "a stricter regulatory structure" that would avoid additional disease outbreaks.
The FDA in the past several years has drawn heat for outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that took months for the agency to trace. In addition to the current outbreak of salmonella from peanut butter made by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which began in September, salmonella-tainted jalapeno peppers sickened 1,400 people in the U.S. and Canada between last April and July. A 2006 E. coli outbreak that killed three people was ultimately traced back to contaminated spinach.
In addition, hundreds of dogs and cats died and thousands more became ill in 2007 after they ate pet food laced with the chemical melamine, which had been deliberately put in the chow to artificially inflate its alleged protein content. More recently, the chemical was used in China to bulk up infant formula; six babies there died and nearly 300,000 more became sick from the contaminated milk. Tiny amounts of melamine were recently discovered in American-sold formula, but the FDA said that it wasn't enough to pose a threat.
The FDA says it's working with the Justice Department on a criminal investigation of PCA, and Georgia's Bureau of Investigation also is studying whether the company broke state laws after it shipped products that it knew were contaminated, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. PCA's president, Stewart Parnell, is on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Peanut Standards Board, which sets "quality and handling standards" for peanuts, the newspaper notes.
"We at Peanut Corporation of America express our deepest and most sincere empathy for those sickened in the salmonella outbreak and their families," the company said in a statement posted on its Web site. "We share the public's concern about the potential connection to Peanut Corporation of America's products."
Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, praised Obama for calling for a probe of the embattled FDA and urged Congress to pass legislation requiring the feds to inspect factories such as PCA annually. It notes that it missed problems at the contaminated PCA plant in Blakely, Ga., because it only inspects food-production plants on average once every 10 years.
"The FDA is supposed to be a watchdog for consumers, and for too long, this agency has been coming up short,” Jean Halloran, CU's director of food policy initiatives, said in a statement. “The FDA has been so severely weakened by cutbacks in staffing and funding, and is so poorly equipped to deal with today’s food industry, with its mass production and distribution systems and global sourcing of ingredients, that it can no longer keep food safe. The first step in overhauling the FDA should be requiring that processing plants are inspected every year.”
She said that a recent CU poll found that two-thirds of Americans want the FDA to inspect domestic and foreign food-processing facilities at least once a month.
Reps. John Dingell and Bart Stupak, both Michigan Democrats, and Rep. Frank Pallone (D–N.J.) last week introduced legislation (and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.) is expected to offer a measure this week) calling for the FDA to beef up inspections and oversight of food plants. Sen. Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) is set to offer a version of the bill in the Senate.
The FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have advised consumers not to eat products such as crackers, cookies or candy containing peanut butter or paste unless they first confirm with manufacturers that the ingredients didn't come from PCA. Here's the FDA's full list of recalled peanut butter products.
With Lisa Stein
Image of salmonella typhimurium invading human cell by Rocky Mountain Laboratories/NIAID via Wikimedia Commons