Peanut Butter and Salmonella Outbreak


AP Graphic

The recent Peanut butter and Salmonella outbreaks related to peanut butter have raised significant questions as to the way the US government regulates the oversight of food production plants. To date, at least nine deaths are attributed to peanut-related Salmonella outbreaks, and more than 600 people have been made ill; the original outbreak was traced to a plant owned by the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, Georgia. The plant has closed and the company has since filed for bankruptcy.

It's bad enough when one plant is the source of these types of outbreaks, but what happens when it truly becomes a widespread problem? What is the health department doing about it to make sure this type of poor oversight leading to foodborne illness doesn't happen again?

Slow response to start.

One of the reasons the outbreak has become so severe was that even though cases of salmonella poisoning were seen as early as last September, Food recalls did not begin to happen until January.

Food regulation industry standards are outdated

The FDA's system for managing food safety is a century old and is significantly outdated, considering that today's food manufacturing processes are much faster and efficient than they were even a few years ago. Because the current system is based upon the FDA finding and then fixing problems, contaminated food products can be packaged and shipped before a problem is ever found.

Experts say that the process needs to be the other way around, whereby food processors are beholden to make sure their own products are safe for consumption or face consequences.

Not enough Inspectors

In addition to that, there aren't enough FDA food inspectors to go around. Because they are so significantly overstressed, plants don't get inspected nearly as often as they need to be, almost guaranteeing that there's going to be a breakdown in food safety somewhere.

Therefore, in addition to shifting the burden of responsibility onto the food processor for the peanut butter and salmonella and make sure that food is safe, FDA inspection also needs to be stepped up to make sure that food is safe before it leaves the plant.

Need better and faster recalls

Finally, if it is found that food products are contaminated, recalls need to be instituted as soon as possible to ensure that as few people become sick as possible. As the salmonella and peanut butter cases have shown, there was a problem for many months before the recall ever started. Instituting a recall as soon as a problem was found would have resulted in much less sickness and may even have prevented some deaths.

What can be done?

Unfortunately, current budget shortfalls in many states have left many inspection jobs vacant, leading to a significant inspector shortfall even as compared to what's usual. Currently, some 16,000 sites in one state have only 60 inspectors to manage them. In addition, because the FDA relies on states to do their own inspections state-by-state, there is no streamlined process whereby it is absolutely ensured that inspections even get done.

Preventing problems instead of only fixing them after they happen

Many Congressional representatives are pushing for FDA changes whereby the focus is on prevention, not management after an outbreak such as this one occurs. That means, stiffer inspection protocols, more inspectors overall, and stiffer penalties for food producers who do not take responsibility for their own safety standards so that these types of outbreaks don't even occur. In fact, some members of Congress are calling for people to go to jail instead of simply having to pay fines, which many food producers simply see as a "cost of doing business."

What actually will be done remains to be seen as yet, but with peanut butter and Salmonella and other food borne illness outbreaks becoming more and more common, it's certain that the methods by which the government determines food safety need a significant overhaul.

That is, responsibility for food safety, cleanliness hygiene needs to shift to the food producers instead of just to the FDA to "catch" problems after they occur, stiffer penalties (including jail time if necessary) need to be instituted so that they actually hurt the food producers instead of just being a "cost of business," and more inspectors overall need to be put on the job so that food plants are inspected more often.

This is yet one more thing to be put on the new President's plate, of course, but it's an important one -- since it's something that literally goes on all of our plates, too.