Peanut-related salmonella cases reach 600
A petri dish containing different strains and stages of salmonella being tested at the Los Angeles County Health Department in Downey last summer, in an unrelated outbreak.
The number of people reported to have gotten ill from Salmonella typhimurium poisoning related to peanut products has hit 600 in 44 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most recent illness began Jan. 23. Seventy-four of those illnesses occurred in California.
Now, the Consumer Federation of America and other consumer groups are urging Congress to give the Food and Drug Administration authority that they say would improve the agency's ability to protect the food supply.
The changes include giving the FDA mandatory recall authority and requiring more frequent inspections.
"These changes are critical for FDA to develop a modern, prevention-oriented food safety program," said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.
Legislation introduced in the House would provide the FDA with those authorities.
And the Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, has called on Congress to increase penalties against companies that ship adulterated food and to overhaul food safety laws.
The groups are reacting to the salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America that shipped peanut products to dozens of companies that used them in a wide variety of foods.
Stewart Parnell, owner and president of Peanut Corp. of America, appeared Wednesday before a congressional subcommittee. He declined to answer questions.
"The FDA has been severely weakened by cutbacks in staffing and funding, and is poorly equipped to deal with today's food industry, with its mass production and distribution systems and global sourcing of ingredients. The first step in overhauling the FDA should be requiring that processing plants like PCA are inspected every year," said Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union.
The Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have supported creating a single food safety agency. While the FDA is responsible for the safety of produce, seafood and most processed food, the United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.
Half the people who have become sick are under 16 years of age -- no surprise to parents who watch what children eat. And the list of nearly 1,800 products on the recall list shows how many foods have peanut products in them. It includes crackers and cookies, ice cream, health bars and dog biscuits.
-- Mary MacVean
Photo: Los Angeles Times