The recent peanut butter recall â€” products from theÂ Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) wereÂ contaminated with salmonellaÂ â€” makes a strong case for completely overhauling our food safety system.
First, I think it underscores the need to merge FDA’s food safety functions with those of theÂ Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service â€” in other words, creating a single food regulator.Â
Why? We’ve learned that USDAÂ bought peanuts from PCAÂ and used them for school lunch programs. In fact, it was one of the company’s two biggest customers. And itÂ regularly sent inspectorsÂ to review records at PCA’s processing facility.Â But so did the FDA, the agency in charge of regulating peanut products.
So we had two federal agencies inspecting the same facility â€” aÂ consequence of our splintered regulatory system.
What’s more upsetting, though, is that neither agency prevented this outbreak. The FDA found problems at the PCA plant in 2001 â€” among them, that plant workers used insecticides near food-processing equipment â€” but it was eight years before the agency could do another inspection.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The agency lost more than 1,000 employees in the last decade. It receives about 25 percent of the nation’s food safety budget, and regulates 80 percent of its food supply. (The Agriculture Department visited PCA more often, but the agency is also understaffed and underfunded, relative to its workload.)