Opinion: Is the FDA inept? Peanut butter salmonella outbreak sparks anger, reforms

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Then this year, it turned out that the FDA failed to shut down a Blakely, Ga., peanut-processing plant that produces 1% of all U.S. peanut products. Despite lax health standards and repeated violations of safety codes at the plant, the FDA never did anything to stop production.

This time, salmonella has sickened at least 575 people, eight of whom have died, and now the U.S. Agriculture Department says that tainted peanut butter was sent to schools in California, Minnesota and Idaho.


Congress, tired of the FDA’s bureaucratic ineptitude, is weighing in.

This week, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) fired the first salvo. Flanked by the Vermont mother of a 7-year-old boy who survived the recent salmonella outbreak and the Minnesota son of a 72-year-old woman who did not, DeLauro introduced the Food Safety Modernization Act, which threatens to shake up the cozy world of food regulation.

The bill would create a separate Food Safety Administration under the Department of Health and Human Services. In other words, one agency to relate drugs and medical devices, another to regulate food. And it would give the new food agency authority to mandate -- not just suggest -- recalls. Equally important, it would set new standards for food producers to control health hazards in their operations and allow surprise federal inspections.

‘This salmonella outbreak represents the full-scale breakdown of a patchwork food safety system,’ she said. ‘And it should act as the final wake-up call.’

DeLauro has introduced the bill before, to disappointing results. But this time she has the backing not only of an array of new food safety groups like STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority) but of President Obama. In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer on Super Bowl Sunday, Obama said:

I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch, and so we’re going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations. At bare minimum we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter. That’s what Sasha eats for lunch probably three times a week. I don’t want to have to worry about whether she’s going to get sick as a consequence of having her lunch.

The New Haven Democrat, whose grandmother ran a pastry shop and whose parents both served in local government, made it clear that this year she means to win.

For eight long years, our food safety system has been crippled by disinvestment, mismanagement and a failure to meet its most basic regulatory responsibilities. True reform is going to require strong leadership from our president. I am confident, at last, that we have a government that understands its obligation to its citizens.

Read the testimony of Jeff Almer, whose mother died in the salmonella outbreak, below.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Last year, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers not to eat tomatoes, which it believed to be the cause of a salmonella outbreak. Then, weeks later, after the same agency declared that the real culprit was peppers imported from Mexico, tomatoes were in the clear.

But the U.S. tomato industry had lost $500 million and has never fully recovered. CNN’s Lou Dobbs was so outraged over the bungle he suggested that President Bush should be impeached for that and not the war in Iraq.

Testimony of Jeff Almer, whose mother died of salmonella food poisoning, during a news conference with Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) this week:

My mother, Shirley Almer, had a lot of Sisu, which is what Finnish people call a person with spunk, fortitude and determination. That is why her death on Dec. 21, 2008 -- from of all things, salmonella-contaminated peanut butter -- came as such a shock to our family.

In May of 2007, Mom had a couple dime-sized spots of cancer diagnosed on her right lung. She decided to have it removed at the University of Minnesota, and was subsequently diagnosed cancer free. She took a family trip to Florida a year later to celebrate with her children and grandchildren, and it was such a joy to see her enjoying life and laughing after that terrible scare.

Then, in late July 2008, she suffered a seizure and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The prognosis was hopeful, and she was determined to do whatever it took to beat cancer for a second time. She underwent brain radiation. My brother, Mike, and I watched in horror as she suffered another seizure which caused some issues on her right side as well as swallowing and speech hardships. She was required to stay at the university hospital but fought back through rehab and regained the use of her limbs despite some doctor’s prognosis. It was through sheer determination and a can-do attitude she overcame all that, never ever complaining. One of her wonderful rehab nurses told me she was a “shining light” and said she was amazed.

Mom then had a treatment session with a gamma knife, which is a pinpoint precision procedure to zap the remaining cancer cells. She was released in early October to recuperate with our family and, in late October, she was once again declared “cancer free” by the University of Minnesota.

Unfortunately, Mom contracted a urinary tract infection around Thanksgiving where once again she needed to check in short-term to a rehab-care facility in Brainerd for care and treatment. She couldn’t wait to get home and even suggested getting a puppy from an acquaintance.

Her short-term stay was supposed to end the Monday prior to Christmas, when she would then join the family for the holidays. Unfortunately, she began to complain of stomach cramping and also had diarrhea. There was a downward spiral from that point.

The family was absolutely stunned to learn that, on the day before her scheduled release from the rehab facility, the doctors were giving her just hours to live. It was very unexpected and equally hard to fathom how she could possibly have gotten to this point. We ended up saying our tearful goodbyes and watching her last breaths on Sunday, Dec 21.

The holidays were nonexistent and mattered little. Her wake and funeral were the following weekend. It was just after the New Year that my sister, Ginger, was informed by the Minnesota Department of Health about the positive test for salmonella. A week or so earlier, she had unknowingly consumed salmonella-laced peanut butter while in her immune-compromised state of health.

Cancer couldn’t claim her, but peanut butter did. Now that we understood the cause of her death, our grief was replaced by anger as we struggled to accept this very preventable tragedy. Our family feels cheated. My mom should be with us today.

My mother, Shirley, was a proud mother, a proud businesswoman and a proud American. She fought hard for the things she believed in. She always liked to fly the U.S. flag along with the Finnish flag, which was her heritage. If it was one of her kids who passed away from salmonella-tainted food, or one of the many other contaminants present in our food supply these days, there is no doubt that she would be as outraged as I am today. She would be doing the same thing her family is doing is her memory right now: telling her story in order to effect change.

Shirley Almer loved this country but was terribly let down by a broken and ineffective food safety system. She was let down in the worst possible way by the very government whose responsibility it is to protect its citizens. We cannot continue to ignore the public health threat caused by poorly regulated and contaminated foods. We cannot allow food safety to be continually underfunded and expose unsuspecting Americans to deadly pathogens. We need strong laws, regulations and effective enforcement enacted to protect our families.

The government and the industry need to work together to correct a multitude of problems. I am proud to be asking for change on behalf of my mother, Shirley, and on behalf of STOP -- Safe Tables Our Priority. My family, STOP and foodborne-illness victims’ families everywhere very much appreciate the efforts of Congresswoman DeLauro, who is working tirelessly to help correct a broken system at the FDA and to better protect public health and safety.

--Jeff Almer