June 30, 2008
The FDA and Peanut Butter Death
By Jeanine Kendle
Beef used in elementary cafeterias, slaughtered incorrectly -- recalled, February 2008. Bags of spinach laced with E. coli -- recalled, September 2006. Cans of Purina pet food infected with tainted vegetable proteins -- recalled, March 2007. A jar of reduced sugar Peter Pan Peanut Butter that was in my parents' cupboard and wreaked havoc on my lower intestine -- recalled with salmonella, February 2007 (better late than never).And now 600 people across the country sick from salmonella linked to tomatoes grown outside the United States, like all those used as decoration on Big Macs, (you guessed it) -- recalled, June 2008.
Forget worries about increasing food prices. It's time we became concerned with decreasing food safety.
After two years of "tainted this" and "recalled that," what has changed for the Food and Drug Administration? If it were a private business wouldn't someone be fired? Wouldn't investors demand an internal audit?
In 2007, ConAgra Foods, the company that produced the 2007 salmonella-tainted peanut butter, brushed aside the FDA like beer cans underneath a frat house futon.
FDA documents show inspectors were told by the plant manager for ConAgra that with the 2004 bacteria problems, "they could not provide information ... until checking with corporate officials."
When inspectors returned they were assured the company dealt with any problems internally and the products not meeting the company's specifications were destroyed. Case closed Columbo. That is, until people started getting more than their usual share of personal peanut problems.
After the 2006 E. coli outbreak in California's spinach, FDA Director Robert E. Brackett admitted before the Committee on Health Education that maybe the FDA needed to make improvements on its oversight of ready-to-eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Oops.
Since then, The Associated Press reported only 29 West Coast vegetable farms were inspected from September 2006 to September 2007. So cross your fingers and hope your bag of lettuce doesn't let you down.
As for 2008, just 1.3 percent of imported fish, vegetables and fruit are inspected by the FDA. Of course, it's OK, though, because of the 1.3 percent that is inspected, rarely does anything prove unfit for human constipation ... I mean consumption.
Even scarier than unchecked imported fish is how the FDA reacts when outbreaks occur. The first victim of the recent salmonella tainted tomato was discovered April 16. It was June 3 when the FDA finally announced maybe Americans should watch what "tomaters" they ate.
I'll admit, there's more to it than just the FDA. We wield the sledge hammer of consumer buying power. That is, when gas prices don't turn our sledge hammers into a ball-peen. We are the deciders. We decide what to eat and where to buy it. We also are at fault.
I joke around with friends that after my run-in with the deadly jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter I should make a T-shirt that proudly states, "I survived salmonella."
Perhaps a better T-shirt would say, "Know the hand that feeds you."
We, as a culture ,have come so far from knowing where our spinach is bagged or how our tomatoes are grown, that when an outbreak occurs it takes months to detect the source.
It isn't just the price of fuel that should drive us to shop at local farmers' markets. There's a safety in knowing where your food comes from.
Today, I stop at places that display signs advertising "local produce." I buy corn from a couple that grows it on a farm in Hartville. I buy snap peas from a man in Massillon and strawberries from a place in Navarre.
I still cringe, though, when I'm at the grocery store and I catch sight of that happy smiling boy-fairy, Peter Pan on the side of a jar of peanut laced death. I take a deep sigh, cross my fingers and pray that whatever happens chocolate isn't next.
Reporter Katy Ganz can be reached at 330-674-1811 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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