Amid peanut scandal, Georgia moves to tighten its food-safety net
On Wednesday, the state legislature began work on measures to tighten food inspections, while in Washington, the CEO of Peanut Corp. refused to testify before Congress.
(Page 2 of 2)
“It all kind of came from saying, ‘All right, what’s all going on and how could this maybe have been prevented?’ ” says Representative England in a phone interview from Washington. “And it boiled down to: What if there might have been a set of local eyes and ears that could have stepped in and said, ‘Let’s look at this?’ ”Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Former Food and Drug Administration policy commissioner Michael Taylor says more local vigilance could indeed help.
“These agencies have to be a cop on the beat and be prepared to take action to prevent problems, and this is what’s missing in the way the inspection system works,” says Mr. Taylor. “We need all the eyes and ears on the ground that we can get.”
Critics, however, say the Blakely lapses indicate that what’s really needed is a better-funded and more robust federal system, rather than the current patchwork state-by-state system, which they say relies too much on local and state agencies to root out unsanitary plants. With 400 fewer federal investigators on hand than five years ago, the FDA today regularly contracts with states to carry out plant inspections.
“It may be very difficult for a state like Georgia, which exports peanuts, and where those interests may be very powerful, to stand up against a big local industry,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at the Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y.
But John McKissick, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia, puts more blame on antiquated laws and confusing inspection regimes than on local interests. “Maybe 20 years ago that would have been the case,” Mr. McKissick says. “But I don’t think it’s true today.”
In fact, he says, a major reason reforms are likely to finally move forward is that farmers and food-industry magnates are reversing their objections and are coming out in support of major reforms. In Georgia alone, millions of dollars in farm revenues were lost last year when a salmonella scare involving jalapeños meant a shutdown of plants across the state, even though there was no evidence that state growers supplied tainted peppers.
“We support these [new reforms] not only because we don’t want anybody to be sick from our farm products – that’s our main concern – but it’s an economic disaster for farmers when something like this occurs,” says Jon Huffmaster, the Georgia Farm Bureau’s legislative director in Macon.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the sheer symbolism of the peanut butter jelly sandwich – one committee member called it “more American than even apple pie” – seems to have spurred committee members to promise reforms of inspection laws that go back to 1938.
The tone of federal regulators is also changing under the Obama administration, says Ms. Halloran. During food safety hearings under the Bush administration, Stephen Sundlof, the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified that the FDA needed neither more money nor more authority to do its job.
On Wednesday, in the wake of the historic 1,700-product recall of one of America’s most basic foodstuffs, Mr. Sundlof struck a different note, admitting that dramatic reforms at both the state and federal level would in fact be helpful to the FDA’s mission of keeping the American food chain safe.
Nationally, “I’ve never seen so much recognition of the need for reform as we’ve got right now,” says Taylor. “Now we’ve got the food industry at the table, and we’ve got Congress working on it in a serious way.”