WASHINGTON - Members of a Senate panel rebuked federal health and food safety regulators yesterday for their slow intervention in the nation's peanut-borne salmonella outbreak, demanding that officials find ways to cooperate when responsibility is split among different agencies.
"All of this happened because of a failure - the failure of our government to prevent unsafe food from entering the food chain," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, told officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, lamenting the lack of food safety enforcement authority, said he wanted to see penalties that are much steeper than fines.
"I'd like to see some people go to jail," the Vermont Democrat said. "You give them a fine, well, it's just the cost of doing business. But if somebody thinks they're going to go to jail ... that's an entirely different thing."
Federal officials are investigating a Georgia plant operated by Peanut Corp. of America in connection with a nationwide outbreak of salmonella poisoning in which nearly 600 people in 43 states have been sickened and eight have died.
The company produces only about 1 percent of the nation's peanut products.
Senators focused on the absence of strict regulation of the Blakely, Ga., plant, which had not undergone an FDA inspection since 2001. The FDA instead contracted its operations to the state of Georgia in 2006.
Georgia state inspectors found repeated cleanliness problems at the plant from 2006 to 2008, including grease and food buildup and gaps in doors that could allow rodents to enter, according to news reports.
Dr. Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA's food safety program, said companies are required to inform the FDA if they discover contamination after they have shipped a product, but not if the food is still at the plant. States forward reports on inspections they conduct for the FDA, but they are not required to send inspections performed under their own laws.
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"That's one of the very serious loopholes we need to plug," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican.
As a precautionary measure, Kentucky stopped distributing FEMA emergency meal kits yesterday for victims of last week's ice storm after authorities warned that the meals might include packets of recalled peanut butter.
No illnesses have been reported there.
Invoking federal antiterrorism laws, the FDA later obtained internal company test records that Georgia inspectors could not, including lab tests that found salmonella on 12 occasions in the past two years.
"We simply have an outdated system. Whatever worked 50 to 100 years ago certainly isn't working the way it used to," said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Agriculture Committee chairman and an Iowa Democrat.
Harkin proposed a uniform database allowing physicians across the country to enter information. He also suggested the possibility of a new federal agency dedicated solely to food.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition, food studies and public health professor at New York University, said in an interview that forming a single federal oversight agency is essential.
"Food safety agencies have proven over and over again that they cannot work together," Nestle said. "How much worse does it have to get?"
The Associated Press contributed to this article.