Company officials silent as lawmakers air Salmonella outbreak

Feb 11, 2009 (CDRAP News) – Angry Congress members vowed to give federal food safety regulators more power today as executives from the peanut processing company linked to the nationwide Salmonella outbreak refused to answer questions at a committee hearing.

Executives of Peanut Corp. of America (PCA), whose plant in Blakely, Ga., has been linked to the outbreak, declined to testify, citing their Constitutional protection against self-incrimination. PCA President Stewart Parnell and plant manager Sammy Lightsey both refused to answer questions.

The FDA recently launched a criminal investigation of the company after determining that it had released peanut products that had tested positive for Salmonella. Health officials had identified 600 cases in the 44-state outbreak as of yesterday, and a ninth death potentially related to the contamination was reported today.

As it held the hearing, which was streamed over the Web, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations published a number of damaging e-mails sent by PCA officials. Among other things, the messages show the company was aware of positive Salmonella tests and that Parnell nonetheless insisted as late as Jan 12 that the company had never found any Salmonella in its products.

In a Jan 12 e-mail message to Lightsey and others, discussing Minnesota's discovery of Salmonella in an opened tub of peanut butter made at the Blakely plant, Parnell wrote, "We do not believe the salmonella came from our facility. As you probably know, we send hourly PB samples to an independent lab to test for Salmonella during production of peanut butter, and we have never found any Salmonella at all."

During the hearing, which lasted more than 4 hours, the subcommittee also heard three witnesses voice outrage over Salmonella infections—two of them fatal—suffered by their relatives in the outbreak. In addition, FDA officials said they have already taken steps to make food processing plant inspections more rigorous and would seek increased authority to regulate the plants.

Jar of potentially tainted products
In an opening statement, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held up a large jar of peanut-containing products and said, "This container is full of products that less than a month ago people were consuming thinking it was fine to eat. I'll ask Mr. Parnell if he'd like to open this and sample some of the products he thought he could send to the public as safe to eat."

Later on, he put the question to Parnell and Lightsey, who both declined to answer, citing their Constitutional rights.

Rep Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chair of the subcommittee, said he was sponsoring legislation to strengthen the FDA, called the FDA Globalization Act of 2009 (HR 759). "If any good could come from this outbreak, it could come in long-overdue legislation," he said in his opening statement.

Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio both said they have reintroduced legislation to give the FDA authority to require companies to recall contaminated food.

Speaking to the witnesses whose relatives suffered in the outbreak, DeGette said, "I'll just make the commitment to you, we’re going to do this, and we're going to do this in your loved ones' memories." She suggested that some action could come as early as next week.

DeGette said the FDA's lack of authority to require food companies to produce records during routine safety inspections contributed to the Salmonella outbreak linked to ConAgra peanut butter 2 years ago. "It shouldn't be that hard to put a system in place that requires them to produce the records when there's a problem," she said.

FDA changing inspection procedures
Dr. Steven Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the current outbreak already has triggered a change in the FDA's inspection procedures. FDA inspectors have not normally taken food or environmental samples for testing during routine inspections at food processing facilities.

"We're changing that now as a result of this [outbreak]," he said, later adding, "That will go a long way to detecting these problems earlier."

The FDA probably will produce specific guidance on manufacturing controls for peanut butter and on the kinds of inspections the FDA will conduct, Sundlof added. "What we're talking about here is a HACCP [hazard analysis and critical control point] type quality control system in which all those things would be documented," he said.

Sundlof also said the FDA is reviewing its previous request for more authority to deal with foodborne disease outbreaks. The agency needs enhanced authority to require preventive controls for high-risk foods, better access to records during inspections, and power to require food facilities to renew their registration every 2 years, he said.

"In addition, we know that mandatory recall would be a useful tool that in some circumstances would help" remove contaminated products from the marketplace, Sundlof said.

Lab officials testify
The subcommittee also heard today from officials of two private labs that tested samples from the Blakely plant.

Darlene Cowart, president of JLA USA, said her company tested about 1,000 samples from the Blakely plant over a period of years. The lab found six Salmonella-contaminated samples in 2007 and four more in 2008, she said.

But after JLA found a contaminated sample in late August of 2008, PCA stopped sending samples for testing, with just one exception. Cowart reported.

A set of e-mails released by the subcommittee showed that PCA samples taken on Aug 11, 2008, tested positive for Salmonella at a JLA lab in Albany, Ga. In one of the messages, Lightsey, the plant manager, said he then sent samples taken the same day to Deibel Laboratories. In another message on Aug 21, Lightsey reported that the Deibel tests showed the samples were clean.

Parnell then responded the same day, "Okay, let's turn them loose then," apparently referring to shipping the products.

Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories, said his firm did not handle "day to day" testing for PCA but "sporadically" received samples from the Blakely plant and PCA's plant in Plainview, Tex. He said the company found Salmonella in a sample from the Texas plant on Feb 8 and immediately reported the finding to the FDA.

It's not unusual to have positive samples, Deibel said, but added, "What is virtually unheard of is for an entity to disregard those results and to place products into interstate commerce."

Deibel told the lawmakers that better preventive efforts are the key to making food safer. "The FDA should focus on quality control systems that minimize the chance for contamination in the first place," he said. He suggested that the agency should provide more guidance to the nation's small and medium-size food companies, adding, "Opportunities to improve food production practices are missed."

Committee members asked Deibel if labs should be certified and be required to submit test results to the FDA. While agreeing that labs should be using good practices, he said, "Mandating that the lab submit results to the government I don't believe would be a good practice."

Pressed further on the point, Deibel said, "My concern is in reporting those positive [test] results, you'd actually encourage those businesses to test less."

Sundlof, when questioned about the idea of requiring labs to report test results, said the FDA would have learned about the contamination at the Blakely plant sooner had such a rule been in force.

Contaminated crackers
In other testimony, Peter Hurley, a police officer from Wilsonville, Ore., told how his 8-year-old son got sick in the outbreak. At first, he said, the family didn't know the boy had salmonellosis, and once they found out, they didn't know how he had been exposed, because the only implicated product at that point was King Nut peanut butter, a PCA-made product served only in institutions.

Ironically, Hurley reported, doctors said it was OK for his son to eat his favorite food: Austin peanut butter crackers—which later were found to be contaminated.

Dr. William Keene, Oregon's state epidemiologist, came to the Hurley home on a Saturday night and collected the remaining Austin crackers, Hurley said. A week later Keene called to say the crackers contained Salmonella that genetically matched samples from the boy.

The lawmakers also heard accounts from Jeffrey Almer, Savage, Minn., whose mother died after getting salmonellosis in the outbreak, and Lou Tousignant, Minneapolis, whose father died after contracting the illness.

"The system that was set up to protect all of us failed," said Tousignant. "My father died because of peanut butter."

See also:

House Energy and Commerce Committee page with links to cited e-mails

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