CU: House Hearing on Industry Role in Salmonella Outbreak Underscores Need for Comprehensive, Annual Food Inspections

For Immediate Release

Consumers Union
Contact: 

Jean Halloran, 914.378.2457
Naomi Starkman, 917.539.3924 (cell)

CU: House Hearing on Industry Role in Salmonella Outbreak Underscores Need for Comprehensive, Annual Food Inspections

Cannot Rely on Paid-for Third-Party Safety Reviews

YONKERS, N.Y. - The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and
Investigations hearing today on the role of industry in protecting the
nation's food supply underscores the need for regular, comprehensive
food inspections, according to Consumers Union (CU), nonprofit
publisher of Consumer Reports. CU urges Congress to overhaul the
nation's food safety laws and to mandate annual inspections of food
processing facilities.

"All food companies need to be extremely diligent about their
suppliers and their safety practices. Hundreds of consumers became
severely ill, and nine died, as a result of failures of companies all
the way down the line to insure that their products were wholesome and
safe," said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for CU.
"However, government oversight is the bedrock of food safety. We're
pleased that Kellogg's CEO is expected to support a U.S. Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) mandate to inspect every food processing facility
at least once a year."

In response to the recent salmonella outbreak in peanut butter
products, several owners of companies that purchased the output of the
Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) will be called as witnesses,
including: Martin Kanan, president and CEO of the King Nut Company;
David Mackay, CEO of the Kellogg Company; and Heather Isely, co-owner
of Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets, Inc. A large number of the
recent peanut-related cases of salmonella poisoning have been traced to
the Austin and Keebler brand crackers manufactured by Kellogg, and to
King Nut brand peanut butter that went to certain health care
facilities. Both purchased peanut products from the PCA plant in
Blakely, Georgia. Vitamin Cottage sold tainted peanut products that
came from PCA's plant in Plainview, Texas.

At last month's Congressional hearing, PCA owner Stewart Parnell
invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions posed by
angry lawmakers. He is the subject of a criminal investigation, and his
company, facing lawsuits by families of salmonella victims, filed for
bankruptcy on February 13.

The FDA last inspected PCA in 2001; when it returned in January 2009
in response to the crisis, it found, among other health hazards,
salmonella on plant surfaces, peanuts stored under water leaks, and
dead roaches.

A recent New York Times investigative story shows how the
job of monitoring food plants has, in large part, fallen to private
auditors. For example, in the PCA situation, Kellogg relied on a
private inspector to protect it from contaminated products. However,
according to the account of one PCA employee, reported in the Atlanta
Journal Constitution, PCA, which had hired the auditor, knew in advance
that this auditor was coming and cleaned up for the inspection.

"Companies cannot rely on pre-announced, private third-party
certification visits paid for by the vendor," said Halloran. "Had there
been better and more independent federal government oversight in place,
businesses could have better protected themselves and consumers from
this deadly outbreak."

To date, more than 3,000 diverse products have been recalled-the
largest number ever in the U.S.-and nine deaths have been linked to the
outbreak. Close to 700 people are known to have fallen sick, but the
actual number could be much higher, as in general only about 3 percent
of salmonella cases are reported to the Centers for Disease Control
(CDC).

CU also praises President Barack Obama's recent appointments of a
new FDA commissioner and deputy commissioner and announcement of the
creation of a Food Safety Working Group.

"President Obama's appointment of a new FDA commissioner will
definitely improve the agency's use of its existing resources and
authority, and the Food Safety Working group should help foster
coordination across federal agencies and ensure that laws are
enforced," said Halloran. "Congress must also act soon to modernize FDA
and give it the additional resources and authority it desperately
needs."

CU supports a number of bills introduced in Congress to upgrade the nation's food safety system.

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Consumers Union (CU) is an expert, independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to work for a fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves.

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