Salmonella Outbreak Prompts Tighter Food Safety

They say nothing is more wholesome than peanut butter, but the government may soon ask companies that make the gooey treat to prove it.

The salmonella outbreak is starting to change the way the government oversees the safety of peanut butter and other foods, health officials tell Congress.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the Food and Drug Administration told lawmakers Wednesday that agency inspectors will start to routinely collect samples for bacterial testing whenever they go into a facility. Currently that's done only if officials suspect a problem.

"We are changing that now as a result of this (outbreak)," Sundlof, head of the FDA's food safety center, told the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee. The panel is looking for ways to prevent another outbreak like the one that has sickened some 600 people and is being linked to nine deaths. More than 1,900 products have been recalled.

Peanut butter may also be singled out for special attention. Sundlof said the government is weighing whether to designate it as a high-risk food. That means producers would be required to follow written food safety plans to prevent contamination.

Producers of juice and seafood already must take such precautions. Asked if they would be appropriate for peanut butter, Sundlof responded, "I believe so."

Consumer advocates say such plans should be required for all food companies, not just some. In the case of peanuts, the plans would include proper roasting to kill salmonella, keeping finished products away from raw peanuts, and making sure the factory roof doesn't leak — since salmonella thrives in moisture.

At Wednesday's hearing, the owner of the peanut company at the heart of the massive salmonella recall refused to answer the lawmakers' questions — or any others — about the bacteria-tainted products he defiantly told employees to ship to manufacturers of cookies, crackers and ice cream.

"Turn them loose," Stewart Parnell had told his plant manager in an internal e-mail disclosed at the House hearing. The e-mail referred to products that once were deemed contaminated but were cleared in a second test last year. Food safety experts say such products should be dumped, not shipped.

Summoned by congressional subpoena, the owner of Peanut Corp. of America repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself.

Parnell sat stiffly, his hands folded in his lap at the witness table, as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held up a clear jar of his company's products wrapped in crime-scene tape and asked if he would eat them.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution," Parnell responded.

After he repeated the statement several times, lawmakers dismissed him from the hearing.

Shortly after Parnell's appearance, a lab tester told the panel that the company discovered salmonella at its Blakely, Ga., plant as far back as 2006. FDA officials told lawmakers more federal inspections could have helped prevent the outbreak.

"We appear to have a total systemic breakdown," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations subcommittee.

A federal criminal investigation is under way.

The House panel released e-mails obtained by its investigators showing Parnell ordered products identified with salmonella to be shipped and quoting his complaints that tests discovering the contaminated food were "costing us huge $$$$$."

In mid-January, after the national outbreak was tied to his company, Parnell told FDA officials that he and his company "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."

In a separate message to his employees, Parnell insisted that the outbreak did not start at his plant, calling that a misunderstanding by the media and public health officials. "No salmonella has been found anywhere else in our products, or in our plants, or in any unopened containers of our product," he said in a Jan. 12 e-mail.

In another exchange, Parnell complained to a worker after being notified that salmonella had been found in more products.

"I go thru this about once a week," he wrote in a June 2008 e-mail. "I will hold my breath ... again."