The CDC has just published its latest MMWR (Morbitity and Mortality Weekly Report) on the epidemiology of the peanut butter outbreak. The good news: the number of cases seems to be going down. Take a look at the charts. The epidemic peaked from mid-November to mid-December but the peak in reporting the cases came a month later. That’s why yesterday’s congressional hearing had so much to say about the need for FDA and CDC to work together to speed up the reporting ( or so reporters tell me). And, thankfully, about the need to give FDA recall authority.
An analysis by the Congressional Research Service says not much, relatively. Although $27 billion to USDA sounds like a big chunk of change, $21 billion of that goes to food assistance (good) but only $6 billion to any kind of farm program (not so good). Missing in action are the things many of us care deeply about: support for small farmers, organic production methods, fruits & vegetables (“specialty crops”), or any of the other things mentioned by Sam Hurst in his discussion of the report at Gourmet’s online site.
I have a hard time keeping up with the number of products recalled because they contain potentially tainted peanut butter. So does the FDA. It now offers a widget that you can load on your computer to receive automatic updates on the recalls. Here’s what the widget looks like:
The recall that I find most surprising comes from the Hain Celestial group, which just called back nearly 900,000 pounds (!) of frozen chicken products because they contain peanut butter produced at the Georgia plant that caused all the problems. Frozen chicken satay? Why is peanut butter in chicken?
And now FEMA is recalling its emergency disaster rations because they might contain tainted peanut butter.
The 1100 products recalled to date are fast approaching the record number of pet foods recalled in 2007. That, no doubt, is why Congresswoman Rosa deLauro (Dem-CT) has just introduced legislation – “The Food Safety Modernization Act” – to separate off food from FDA oversight and create a separate agency to regulate the safety of the food supply. As she puts it, this is the final wake-up call. Let’s hope.
Not only do we have one food supply that serves people, animals, and pets, but that food supply is incredibly interlocked. If one food causes problems, you can bet that there are problems in lots of other places.
Update February 7: The New York Times has produced a video on the recalls.
The FDA has its hands full these days, what with peanut butter, no commissioner, and Daschle withdrawing for consideration as secretary of Health and Human Services (the FDA’s parent agency). Even so, the FDA is concerned about weight loss supplements that it considers fraudulent, and has now gone after 70 of them. The FDA has a lot on its plate, as it were, and let’s hope the new administration figures out a way to make oversight of the food supply a priority.
February 10 update: the New York Times has a long piece on this problem. Turns out that a lot of these so-called herbal products actually contain weight loss drugs of one kind or another. They are not supposed to.
Thanks to Food Chemical News for telling its readers about the President’s appearance on the NBC Today Show this morning:
Matt Lauer: There’s been a massive peanut butter products recall in this country over the last several weeks, most of the products traced to one plant in Georgia that has a bit of history of sending out products even though there have been traces of Salmonella found. The question…the obvious question people want to know is, “Is the FDA doing its job?”
President Obama: Well, I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch. And so we are going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations. At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter. That’s what Sasha eats for lunch, probably three times a week, and you know I don’t want to have to worry about whether she is going to get sick as a consequence of having her lunch.
This leaves me breathless. I’ve been saying for years that the only thing that would ever get Congress moving on the FDA would be if a relative of an important Senator became seriously ill with food poisoning, not something I would wish on anyone. Fingers crossed everyone!
Food safety must be becoming a huge problem for the food industry. A group of ten food trade associations, one of them the Grocery Manufacturers of America, is calling on Congress to give the FDA the resources and power to impose stronger food safety regulations. Really? Have food companies finally figured out that a strong FDA would be good for business (consumer confidence, level playing field)? Or are they thinking that this will give them the chance to write the regulations?
Food Production Daily, a food industry website from the U.K., has some interesting things to say about food scoring and ranking systems, and especially about how their proliferation is so confusing to the public. There are so many now, that nobody can keep them straight. My sentiments exactly.
July 24 update: Fortunately, the website, fooducate.com, keeps track of them. This is a great place to get started!