Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Not Just Peanuts

It’s being charged that the Peanut Corporation of America knowingly sold peanuts tainted with salmonella in 2007 and 2008.

The Food and Drug Administration, which made the allegation, has, meanwhile, asked retailers and consumers to throw out every product made with peanuts processed by the corporation’s plant in Blakeley, Georgia. It has produced peanut butter, paste and granules used in products including cookies and ice cream.

FDA officials said four different strains of salmonella have been detected at the plant at which, in 14 inspections made in January, it found unsanitary conditions, including dead roaches and gaps where rodents could enter.

The situation has been linked to a salmonella outbreak in 43 states in which nine people have died, 500 have become ill.

Officials of the Peanut Corporation of America have a lot of answering to do and that might be in criminal court. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has called on the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation.

But, meanwhile, what about the FDA—which is supposed to protect us from bad food?

Until its 14 inspections after the salmonella outbreak happened, the last time the FDA inspected the Blakeley plant was in 2001.

Representative John Dingell of Michigan has said the Peanut Corporation of America situation demonstrates that the FDA “can’t and doesn’t do its job, and American lives are at risk. We’re killing Americans.”

This is a very old story: about those who are supposed to protect us from tainted food and other poisons failing to do so, and that’s often because of a coziness with those they’re supposed to be regulating.

I wrote a book about this in which I told the tale of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, regarded as the father of the FDA. Indeed, there’s even a postage stamp in his honor. As chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he played a large part in getting the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 passed and the FDA created.

But in 1912, as a matter of conscience, Dr. Wiley resigned from the government and wrote a book, The History of a Crime Against the Food Law, about how the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act was not being properly enforced because of power of those it was supposed to police.

President Barak Obama has an opportunity to do something about a century of failure by U.S. regulatory agencies—especially the FDA. It’s a matter of life and death.

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