The number of salmonella infections has climbed to 637 patients across 44 states, all linked to contamination from Peanut Corp. of America products.

As the New York Times has reported, PCA has filed for bankruptcy, its organic certification has come under fire, and company emails show management’s disregard for consumer health.

“The current salmonellosis outbreak from peanut butter, along with other recent outbreaks, demonstrates clearly that our current system of food safety has fundamental flaws requiring congressional and executive action,” says Mickey Parrish, PhD, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture.

“The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition is grossly understaffed and underfunded and unable to consistently fulfill regulatory and congressional mandates,” he explains. “Dedicated FDA employees cannot state this type of discord publicly, of course; however, it is obvious to those of us who are familiar with CFSAN that it suffers from a decade or more of neglect at the hands of the executive branch, Congress and FDA administrators who do not have the appropriate backgrounds to understand food contamination issues.

“In addition to this severe lack of resources,” he adds, “FDA’s regulatory authority is limited and based upon an old statute (1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act) that is in great need of revision to address problems such as lack of mandatory recall. Until Congress and the President provide FDA with adequate resources and regulatory authority, the public should not be surprised when news of yet another foodborne disease outbreak occurs.”

One of Dr. Parrish’s colleagues offers further insights.

“The current problem of salmonella in peanuts can be traced back to the Reagan presidency, when a nationwide climate of deregulation began,” says Mark Kantor, PhD, an associate professor of nutrition and food safety. “However, today’s economic crisis is dramatic evidence of what can happen when government regulations become too lax. We need sensible regulations to protect consumers, including more frequent inspections and stiffer fines when violations are found—but first Congress needs to provide the regulatory agencies with adequate resources to get the job done.

“This peanut outbreak is inexcusable,” Dr. Kantor continues, “because it was already crystal clear to government and industry that peanuts could be a source of foodborne pathogens, as commercial peanut butter containing salmonella was recalled in 2007. This company decided to continue producing and selling a product it knew was contaminated because it obviously felt it could get away with it. We have problems like this because pathogens like salmonella are naturally present in the environment, which means that a conscious effort must be made to keep them out of food and to minimize their growth. Proper sanitation is part of the solution. The problem is especially difficult when a food becomes contaminated and is not subjected to a heat treatment that will destroy the pathogens; we have seen this happen repeatedly with raw vegetables.

“The bottom line,” he concludes, “is that all food companies need to make safety a top priority—all of the time—and to never sacrifice safety for profits.”

New Recalls (Organic and Natural Foods)