President Barack Obama’s 8-year-old daughter, Sasha, likes peanut butter. In fact, she eats it three times a week, which isn’t particularly good news for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which Obama vowed would undergo a “complete review” for failure to detect shipments of Salmonella-tainted peanut products that, by February, sickened nearly 600 people and might have resulted in nine deaths.
“I don’t want to have to worry about whether my kid’s going to get sick as a consequence of having her lunch,” Obama told “Today” Show host Matt Lauer on February 2. “At a bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter.”
Obama also told Lauer that the FDA’s failure to intercept as many as 1,500 products potentially tainted with Salmonella was only the latest instance in which the agency “has been unable to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect,” he said.
Great expectations are the order of the day now that Obama is in the White House, though it remains to be seen whether the recall of tainted peanut products, traced to Blakely, Georgia–based processor Peanut Corp. of America (PCA), will mark a turning point in federal policy in the way that E. coli-tainted hamburgers did for another young president flush with promise.
Following four deaths linked to hamburgers sold by Jack in the Box, Bill Clinton presided over some of the most sweeping reforms the food industry had undergone in generations, from the introduction of safe-handling labels on consumer products to a complete overhaul of federal requirements for food safety. It even included the implementation of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs in processing plants.
The roads both taken and not taken in ensuing years have been as much a source of frustration as accomplishment for processors, foodservice operators, and regulators alike. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) arguably has made greater strides in food safety than the beleaguered FDA.
Focus began to shift to the FDA in 2006, when the Bush administration found itself confronted with a deadly outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 linked to Dole Baby Spinach. In 2008, history repeated itself with a massive Salmonella outbreak linked to jalapeño peppers. In 2007, the administration encountered the far larger problem of tainted imports from China, the majority of which fell under the FDA’s purview.
Since then, promises have been made and budgets increased but, unlike the USDA, the FDA still lacks the mandate and manpower to authorize and enforce tougher food-safety regulations. “In some cases we’re looking at regulations that haven’t changed in 100 years,” says Donna Garren, vice president of health and regulatory affairs with the Washington, D.C.–based National Restaurant Association (nra). “Some of them need to be evaluated for their applicability in today’s global market.”
More recent federal initiatives, including traceability provisions contained in 2002’s Bioterrorism Act, are coming under scrutiny thanks to the long time it took for investigators to located adulterated products in recent produce-related outbreaks.
“We need to consider which approaches can best achieve quick withdrawal of products from the supply chain,” Garren says. She doesn’t expect the Obama administration to require foodservice operators to trace their ingredients, nor does she believe the administration should since the Bioterrorism Act requires restaurant distributors to do so. Nevertheless, she recognizes that proposals for farm-to-table traceability are piling up and hopes the NRA will have a say once discussions begin.