WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, speaking as the nation's chief executive and a father, wants the nation's food safety agency to do a better job.
Concerned about a salmonella outbreak involving peanut products that has sickened 550 people and is blamed for at least eight deaths, Obama says he wants to review how the Food and Drug Administration operates.
"I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to," Obama said in an interview aired Monday on NBC's "Today" show.
The president said Americans should be able to rely on the government to keep children safe when they eat peanut butter and that includes his 7-year-old daughter Sasha.
"That's what Sasha eats for lunch probably three times a week. And you know, I don't want to have to worry about whether she's going to get sick as a consequence to having her lunch," Obama said.
The FDA had no comment and referred queries to the White House.
White House plans to quickly appoint a new FDA director may be complicated by Senate delays in confirming Tom Daschle to head the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees the FDA.
More than 800 consumer products, ranging from ice cream to dog biscuits, have been recalled since federal officials traced the source of the salmonella outbreak to a Georgia peanut processor owned by Peanut Corp. of America.
The number of goods affected could well set a record. At one point last week, when around 400 products had been identified, FDA officials were already calling it one of the largest recalls in memory.
Officials said Peanut Corp. shipped products that initially tested positive for salmonella after retesting and getting a negative result. The FDA has asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into the plant.
Documents showed that until shortly before the salmonella outbreak, federal food safety inspectors had not been to the plant since 2001.
"The FDA is supposed to be a watchdog for consumers, and for too long, this agency has been coming up short," said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union.
Halloran said Congress should give the agency power to order food recalls, require annual inspections of food processing facilities and require processors like Peanut Corp. to disclose when their own tests find tainted products.
Federal officials say the Peanut Corp. plant in Georgia had a salmonella problem dating back at least to June 2007 but had not disclosed it to the FDA.
National brands of jarred peanut butter sold directly to consumers, as well as the perennial must-have Girl Scout Cookies, have been unaffected by the recalls.
FDA officials warn that some smaller companies may have received peanut butter from the Peanut Corp. processing plant in Georgia. On Friday, FDA officials urged consumers to be cautious about "boutique" brands of peanut butter, which had not previously figured in the recall.
The Georgia plant processes peanuts for institutions and food companies. But its peanut products are ingredients in hundreds of other of goods, so the recall has just kept growing.
The government has warned consumers to check foods containing peanuts and peanut products against a list of recalled products, available at www.fda.gov.