Food Safety a Serious Problem in the U.S.
The recent peanut butter recall has not only given the public a glimpse into the decrepit conditions of the Georgia peanut factory responsible, but has also raised concerns about the overall issue of food safety. Given that the Peanut Corporation of America has knowingly provided the public with salmonella tainted peanut butter, the focus has begun to shift to who was testing the peanut butter for contaminants and why these problems were not divulged when they were found out.
According to the New York Times, investigators found a peanut plant that stored raw product next to finished peanut butter, a roaster that was not calibrated to kill bacteria, low worker morale based on low pay and temp jobs, and a leaking roof. Because salmonella thrives in moist conditions, the plant was at extreme risk. However, while these issues may have caused the peanut butter to become contaminated, it reached the public through other means.
Records show that state and federal inspectors do not require the entire peanut industry to notify the public or government that their plants were contaminated with salmonella. Also, many large corporations that rely on these plants for peanuts for many products assume the plant will perform safety tests and let them know if there is a problem. This idea of self-regulation has obviously not worked at all.
It took a whistleblower to report that ConAgra Foods had found salmonella in their Georgia peanut butter plant in 2004, but did not release their lab tests to the government. While the government finally decided to pursue the records in 2007, and three years after the incident came to their attention, hundreds of people were made ill. However, even after the government obtained the records, ConAgra insisted in a letter that: “Once the FDA has completed its review of the documents, please return them to ConAgra Foods or shred.” In the case of the Peanut Corporation of America, federal investigators had to invoke a bioterrorism law to get the company’s records. These showed positive tests for salmonella occurred 12 times since 2007.
Because they were caught, ConAgra has acknowledged “past mistakes.” It shut down the plant for six months and spent millions to eliminate water leaks and air flows that might contain contaminants, as well as improved the plant in other ways. It also instilled a list of 80 rules that all employees must follow. In addition, they sample one jar of peanut butter from each line every 20 minutes, and will give the government test results when they ask. The expected caveat here is that they still will not voluntarily turn over their tests if they test positive for contamination.
The family-run Peanut Corporation of America released a statement, which said: “We are sorry our process fell short of not only our goals, but more importantly, your expectations.” Although they have known about the problems for several years, and their employees were aware of these problems, it took the sickening of nearly 20,000 people and the deaths of eight in 43 states, plus a huge number of recalls that is continuing to this day, plus a criminal investigation for them to apologize or even mention they were spreading salmonella.
Future of Food Safety
Many people believe this should never have happened, and would like to know why it did. This is especially true for those whose family members were killed. For starters, the food safety in this country is cobbled together through various agencies. There is not one central department whose job is to focus solely on the safety of the food we eat. Also, those who are tasked with inspecting food plants for problems are stretched thin. There are 16,000 businesses that handle food in Georgia, but only 60 agents to cover all of them. It is no wonder they did not find the Peanut Corporation of America plant problems until this story broke. This is the case is every state.
And now, because this recall has hit worldwide, some are comparing this to the tainted milk scandal in China. As Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing our food safety problems as coming from other countries. This outbreak is telling us we haven’t been paying enough attention.”
Many experts and food leaders in this country are wondering if it’s time for a new Department of Food. And maybe they’re correct that the time is right.