tampabay.com

FDA knew of problems before recent outbreaks

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published April 23, 2007


WASHINGTON - The Food and Drug Administration has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant and on California spinach farms that led to disease outbreaks that killed three people, sickened hundreds, and forced one of the biggest product recalls in U.S. history, documents and interviews show.

FDA officials conceded that its system needs to be overhauled to meet today's demands but denied that the agency could have done anything to prevent either contamination episode.

"We have 60,000 to 80,000 facilities that we're responsible for in any given year," said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's food safety arm, which is responsible for safeguarding 80 percent of the nation's food supply. Explosive growth in the number of processors and the amount of imported foods mean manufacturers "have to build safety into their products rather than us chasing after them," Brackett said. "We have to get out of the 1950s paradigm."

Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce committee will hold a hearing into the unprecedented spate of recalls, including the more recent contamination of pet food.

In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide requested documents, investigators left and failed to follow up.

This year, a salmonella outbreak traced to the plant's Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter brands sickened more than 400 people in 44 states. The likely cause, ConAgra said, was moisture that activated dormant salmonella in the plant, which is now closed.

Brackett said that if the inspectors had seen anything truly dangerous the agency would have taken further action. But, he said, the agency cannot force a disclosure, a recall or a plant closure except in extreme circumstances, like finding a hazardous batch of product.

The problem in 2005, he added, "doesn't necessarily connect to the salmonella outbreak right now."

The FDA has known for even longer about illnesses among people who ate spinach and other greens from California's Salinas Valley, the source of outbreaks over the past six months that have killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states.

In a letter sent to California growers in late 2005, Brackett wrote, "FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by (E. coli bacteria) for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated ... in one additional case, fresh-cut spinach was implicated."

"We know that there are still problems out in those fields," Brackett said in an interview last week. "We knew there had been a problem, but we never and probably still could not pinpoint where the problem was."