WASHINGTON – One of the worst outbreaks of foodborne illness in the U.S. is teaching the food industry the truth of the adage, "Be careful what you wish for because you might get it."
The industry pressured the Bush administration years ago to limit the paperwork companies would have to keep to help U.S. health investigators quickly trace produce that sickens consumers, according to interviews and government reports reviewed by The Associated Press.
The White House also killed a plan to require the industry to maintain electronic tracking records that could be reviewed easily during a crisis to search for an outbreak's source. Companies complained the proposals were too burdensome and costly, and warned they could disrupt the availability of consumers' favorite foods.
The apparent but unintended consequences of the lobbying success: a paper record-keeping system that has slowed investigators, with estimated business losses of $250 million. So far, nearly 1,300 people in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada have been sickened by salmonella since April.
Investigators initially focused on tomatoes as a culprit. Now they are turning attention to jalapeno peppers.
A former member of Bush's Cabinet and three former senior officials in the Food and Drug Administration told the AP that government food safety experts did not get the strong record-keeping and trace-back system originally proposed under a bioterrorism law to cope with a major foodborne illness.
"In retrospect, yes, if they (the regulations) had been broader and a bit more far-reaching, it could have helped with this," said Robert Brackett, senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "It wouldn't have hurt, for sure." Brackett formerly was a top safety official at the FDA.
Under pressure in 2003 and 2004, the White House agreed to dilute record-keeping proposals by FDA safety experts.
"If the FDA had been given the resources and authority years ago that it asked for to solve these kinds of problems, I think we would have solved this already," said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner.
Tommy Thompson, who was health secretary during the industry's lobbying campaign, acknowledged that a more robust food-tracking system — opposed by business groups as too expensive — could have helped stem the current illnesses and business losses.
"We went in with the larger package but knew we had to compromise," Thompson told the AP. "I was satisfied with this being the first step. It's always better to be a Monday morning quarterback. We could have ended up with nothing. If we had more, would it help the situation now? Yes."
According to government records reviewed by the AP, business groups met at least 10 times with the White House between March 2003 and March 2004, as the FDA regulations were under debate. Food industry lobbyists successfully blunted proposals using arguments familiar in other regulatory debates: The government's plans would saddle business with unnecessary and costly regulations.
"The FDA's strong proposed bioterrorism rules were significantly watered down before they became final," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. The private advocacy group obtained the White House meeting records under the Freedom of Information Act and provided them to the AP.
Participants in the meetings included companies and trade groups up and down the food chain, including Altria Group Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc., when Altria was Kraft's parent; The Kroger Co.; Safeway Inc.; ConAgra Foods Inc.; The Procter & Gamble Co.; the American Forest and Paper Association; the Polystyrene Packaging Council; the Glass Packaging Institute; the Cocoa Merchants' Association of America; the World Shipping Council; and the Food Marketing Institute.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association spent $2.6 million on lobbing in 2003 and 2004, the period when the FDA rules were under consideration, according to federal lobbying records. The Food Marketing Institute spent $1.7 million during the period. The figures were for all lobbying by the trade groups and on their behalf.
The grocery group complained during the comment period that the FDA was overstepping authority that Congress had granted under the new bioterrorism law. It said the FDA wanted a "cradle-to-grave record-keeping system" to track every morsel of food delivered to every retail grocery shelf and said more tracking information does not always produce a better result.
The marketing institute said a proposed tracking system as envisioned by the FDA "would be exorbitantly costly."
The food industry now says it will agree to a better tracing system operated by the government, as long as the industry can advise how to design it.
"We support the government requiring industry to have traceability systems that are effective and work," said Jill Hollingsworth, group vice president for food safety programs at the marketing institute. "But industry has to come up with a system that follows products throughout the food chain."
The FDA official in charge of the current salmonella investigation, David Acheson, said the agency slowly is reviewing paper records to help trace tainted produce. But Acheson disputed arguments that an electronic records system would necessarily have helped investigators.
"We still haven't managed to figure out this outbreak," he said in an interview days before the case's biggest break — discovery of a tainted Mexican-grown jalapeno in a southern Texas warehouse.
The White House Office of Management and Budget defended its meetings with food industry groups in 2003 and 2004, saying it regularly meets with companies and individuals with a stake in proposed government rules.
"Our door is open for anyone — from non-profits, industry representatives to individual citizens — who request meetings on regulations," OMB spokeswoman Jane Lee said. "These are listening sessions in conjunction with personnel from the regulating agency and we publicly post these meetings online."