In the news

Philadelphia Inquirer
Jeff Gelles

A coalition of consumer groups says that a steady stream of food recalls - including last month's pullback of more than half a billion eggs by two Iowa producers - shows how urgent it is for Congress to require regular inspections of production facilities and to give the Food and Drug Administration authority to order food recalls.

At a news conference Wednesday outside a Center City grocery, representatives of the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group (PennPIRG) displayed examples of hundreds of FDA-regulated products that have been recalled by more than 150 companies since July 30, 2009 - the date that the U.S. House passed the proposed Food Safety Enhancement Act.

The groups are pressing for Senate action on similar legislation before the upper chamber takes its election recess in about two weeks. Both bills would require periodic inspections, mandate that food products be traceable, and give the FDA new recall authority.

The PennPIRG display included bags of prewashed spinach as well as other processed, "ready-to-eat" foods such as frozen waffles and peanut butter. Each was an example of 85 recalls that have occurred since the House's action, said Alana Miller, of PennPIRG.

A single recall can affect dozens of separate products, such as Basic Food Flavors Inc.'s February recall of hydrolyzed vegetable protein. The Las Vegas company's protein, found to contain salmonella, was used as a flavor enhancer in a wide range of nationally distributed products such as soups, dips, food mixes, pretzels, and potato chips.

Salmonella, a type of bacteria also found in the recalled Iowa eggs, can cause serious illness or death, especially in high-risk victims such as infants or the elderly, though it usually leads to less-severe illnesses with fever and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Miller said the display was meant to illustrate the broad risks from lax controls on foodborne disease, which federal estimates say cause an annual toll of 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths.

Many illnesses result from mistakes in food handling, such as contamination of salad ingredients with bacteria commonly found on uncooked meat or poultry. But other illnesses are traceable to problems at food processors overseen by the FDA, which regulates fresh eggs, fish, and processed foods.

Miller said the Iowa egg contamination, which may be linked to sloppy practices at two producers, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, was just the largest recent example of why the FDA needs the authority and resources to inspect food processors and order recalls.

"It's not just about eggs," Miller said. "It's about our failed food-safety network."

Jennifer J. Quinlan, a Drexel University microbiologist who spoke at the PennPIRG event, said reforming the food-safety system was crucial to meeting the reasonable expectation that foods offered as ready-to-eat were indeed ready-to-eat safely.

"The FDA hasn't modernized its system in 50 years," Quinlan said.

In Washington on Wednesday, PennPIRG's parent group, U.S. PIRG, joined with the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Science in the Public Interest to make a similar pitch for quick passage of Senate Bill 510, the proposed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

Elizabeth Hitchcock, of U.S. PIRG, said the groups compiled the list of the 85 recent recalls to dramatize the cost of Senate inaction: a continuing stream of recalls, at least some of which could be averted if plants were inspected.

"Recalls should be the action of last resort," Hitchcock said. "We should have a robust inspection system, so that situations like the Wright County Egg farm don't get as bad as they do."

Caroline Smith DeWaal, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said natural microbial risks were magnified by mishandling that could happen at FDA-regulated plants as well as at meatpacking facilities overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She said the proposed legislation would correct a stark contrast in oversight.

"While meat and poultry inspection is done on a daily basis by USDA inspectors assigned to plants, the FDA has no mandatory inspection frequency for eggs, processed foods, seafoods, or dairy products," she said. DeWaal said there was no evidence that the FDA had ever inspected the Iowa egg farms before the recent outbreak, linked so far to about 1,470 illnesses.

Hitchcock said it was crucial to give the FDA authority to order food recalls because of the long delays that are common when regulators and companies have to negotiate terms of a voluntary recall. She said the egg recall was delayed more than two months after the salmonella outbreak was identified.

"While they're doing that," Hitchcock said, "that food is being sold at the grocery, it's in our kitchens, and it's being fed to our kids."

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