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New Look at Food Safety After Peanut Tainting

Gardiner Harris and Pam Belluck, New York Times

January 30, 2009

Christopher Meunier, 7, had not been sick since he was a toddler, but in late November, he suddenly had a high fever and bloody diarrhea and started vomiting.

“He was just in screaming pain,” said his mother, Gabrielle Meunier of South Burlington, Vt. “He said, ‘It hurts so bad, I want to die’ — something you don’t expect to hear out of a 7-year-old’s mouth.”

Hospitalized for six days, Christopher had salmonella poisoning, making him one of more than 500 people sickened across the country after eating peanut butter or peanut products made at a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Ga.

The Food and Drug Administration has charged that the company knowingly shipped contaminated products to some of the largest food makers in the country from a plant that was never designed to make peanut butter safely, causing one of the most extensive food recalls in history. The company responded that it disagreed with some of the agency’s findings and that it had “taken extraordinary measures to identify and recall all products that have been identified as presenting a potential risk.”

Food scares have become as common as Midwestern tornadoes. Cantaloupes, jalapeños, lettuce, spinach and tomatoes have all been subject to major recalls in recent years. And a growing list of manufacturers and trade associations joined consumer advocates in begging for stricter regulations — calls that the Bush administration largely rejected.

A clutch of legislative proposals this year would offer fixes to the system, and people offering those measures expect President Obama to support them because, as a candidate, he repeatedly promised reforms.

“Far too often, tainted food is not recalled until too late,” Mr. Obama said last year. “When I am president, it will not be business as usual when it comes to food safety. I will provide additional resources to hire more federal food inspectors.”

Nearly all of the proposed legislation under consideration would require companies like the Peanut Corporation of America to lay out specific plans for manufacturing safely and testing routinely. The bills would require that test results and other records be made available to government inspectors upon demand, and would provide additional money for more intense inspections of domestic and foreign food factories. Some would also fix the patchwork system by which outbreaks are detected.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, also propose creating a food agency independent of the F.D.A. so that food would receive single-minded attention. At present, at least 12 federal agencies regulate food safety. The battle between those who would strengthen the F.D.A. and those who would break it up will be an important fight this year.

“I think I can prevail on the president to take a fresh look at this,” Mr. Durbin said. “We can no longer forgive or explain what’s happening with food safety in this country.”

Neither the White House nor the Health and Human Services Department would comment on Thursday. But the peanut case, critics say, demonstrates just how badly the system needs fixing, starting with the patchwork surveillance system that is the first indicator that something has gone wrong.

Cases like Christopher’s are reported to local health departments, which in turn are to report them to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By mid-November, the disease centers had seen enough cases of a similar strain of salmonella to be concerned.

“The numbers were not necessarily significant initially — one here, one there,” said Lola Russell, a disease centers spokeswoman. “Over time, those numbers began to grow.”

By mid-December, the Minnesota Department of Health, known as among the best in the nation, had received reports of nine people with salmonella poisoning. As a result, the department’s Team Diarrhea, a group of graduate students who work nights, started calling patients and their caregivers to ask about their food choices .

“We had a lot of peanut-butter eaters,” said Carlota Medus, a state epidemiologist. “But none of the brand names were matching up well.”

Other states were reporting similar cases, but as in Minnesota, no one could figure out the shared food. The process is fraught with uncertainty. State health officials ask people what they remember eating in the days before they became ill. Poor memories and bad records hamper these efforts, and officials are often sent on fruitless pursuits.

Delay is part of the problem. More than two weeks generally pass between the time someone is diagnosed with an illness and the result of a stool sample test is passed on to federal officials.

Last year, the F.D.A. announced a recall of tomatoes, only to discover near the end of the outbreak that the problem had actually been with jalapeños. Tomato growers, who saw much of their crop destroyed and endured millions in losses, were outraged.

With the illnesses involving peanut butter, an initial suspect was chicken.

“The chicken was actually a red herring,” said Ms. Russell of the C.D.C., a diversion that resulted from an outbreak of illness among people who had eaten chicken at an Ohio restaurant as well as peanut butter at a school cafeteria.

Then on Dec. 22, a nursing home in northern Minnesota reported a cluster of cases. Investigating outbreaks in nursing homes is both more challenging and easier than elsewhere — easier because the facilities have set menus, harder because patients are often unable to say what menu choices they ate.

Then another nursing home reported illnesses. On Dec. 28, a Minnesota elementary school reported two children who had become ill. The holidays prevented state workers from talking to school cafeteria workers, but the health department was able to track down the school’s food supplier. Everyone seemed to be eating peanut butter.

Finally, a state health worker asked the nursing homes if they still had jars of the suspect peanut butter. One did, and on Jan. 9, that peanut butter tested positive for salmonella. The state announced that King Nut peanut butter, sold only to institutions, was the culprit. King Nut’s product was made by the Peanut Corporation of America.

The F.D.A. then descended on the Georgia plant with a team of inspectors. It used authority granted under a 2002 bioterrorism law to demand records that inspectors from the Georgia Agriculture Department, which had inspected it twice before without finding serious violations, had not been given access to.

The records showed that on 12 occasions from 2007 to 2008, tests of peanut products made at the plant were contaminated by salmonella. Each time, retests came up clean. But F.D.A. officials said the initial tests should have led plant officials to quarantine their product and clean their facility — neither of which occurred.

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