If there is any upside to the recent outbreak of salmonella poisoning linked to a southwest Georgia peanut processing plant, it is this: America looks like it's finally ready to come to its senses about ensuring a safe food supply. President Barack Obama last week, to bolster current discussions in Congress, announced a Food Safety Working Group to propose changes to regulation. And a Florida state lawmaker should get a hearing on his plan to better monitor the state's own food supply after the state's tomato crop was wrongly fingered in a food scare.
Congress needs to act quickly to tighten lax regulation. It could start by addressing a glaring conflict of interest where companies hire their own inspectors.
A recent report in the New York Times underscored the significance of such a conflict in the salmonella poisoning case involving the Peanut Corporation of America plant that sickened thousands and was linked to nine deaths. The company's own records indicate that it found salmonella at the plant as far back as June 2007. But last spring, a food safety auditor paid by the Peanut Corporation gave the plant an overall food safety level of "superior." As the New York Times reported, the inspector wasn't even aware that peanuts were readily susceptible to salmonella.
Other examples: Private inspectors failed to raise concerns at plants that led to recent poisoning outbreaks from spinach to a children's snack, Veggie Booty; a California meat company passed 17 inspections in 2007 only to have 143 million pounds of beef bound for school cafeterias recalled in early 2008 after undercover video showed sick cows being slaughtered.
Meanwhile in Florida, Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, is pushing a plan to centralize the state's food safety administration under one agency after last year's scare of salmonella in tomatoes wrongfully fingered Florida's crops and scared consumers. He said overlapping responsibilities from Florida agencies led to a miscommunication with the federal government. His bill, Senate Bill 2098, has yet to be heard.
About 5,000 Americans each year die from tainted food. Another 76 million get sick. The sooner elected leaders act, the safer all Americans will be.