WASHINGTON — Members of a Senate panel rebuked federal health and food safety regulators Thursday for slow intervention in the nation's peanut-borne salmonella outbreak, demanding that officials find ways to cooperate when responsibility is split among different agencies.
"All of this happened because of a failure -- the failure of our government to prevent unsafe food from entering the food chain," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at an agriculture committee hearing.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), lamenting the lack of food safety enforcement authority, said he wanted to see steeper penalties than fines.
"I'd like to see some people go to jail," Leahy said. "You give them a fine, well, it's just the cost of doing business. But if somebody thinks they're going to go to jail . . . that's an entirely different thing."
Federal officials are investigating a Georgia plant operated by Peanut Corp. of America in connection with an outbreak of salmonella poisoning that has sickened nearly 600 people in more than 40 states. Eight may have died because of it.
Senators focused on the absence of strict regulation of the plant in Blakely, Ga., which had not undergone an FDA inspection since 2001. The FDA contracted its operations to Georgia in 2006. State inspectors repeatedly found sanitation problems at the plant from 2006 to 2008, including grease and food buildup and gaps in doors that could allow rodents to enter, according to news reports.
The FDA, by invoking federal anti-terrorism laws, later obtained internal company test records that Georgia inspectors could not -- including lab tests that found salmonella on 12 occasions in the last two years.
"We simply have an outdated system. Whatever worked 50 to 100 years ago certainly isn't working the way it used to," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
The answer, Harkin said, is more cooperation among the agencies responsible for regulating food safety and more authority for regulators.
"We saw the impact of deregulation on our financial sector, and now we are seeing the impact of weak oversight on food safety inspections," Harkin said after the hearing. "Food safety in America has too often become a hit-or-miss gamble, and that is truly frightening."
Harkin proposed a uniform database allowing physicians across the country to enter information. He also suggested the possibility of a new federal agency dedicated solely to food.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition, food studies and public health professor at New York University, said in an interview that forming a single agency was essential. "Food safety agencies have proven over and over again that they cannot work together," Nestle said. "How much worse does it have to get?"