WASHINGTON - The salmonella outbreak that has killed as many as nine people and sickened hundreds nationwide has created what advocates say is an unprecedented opportunity to reform the way America safeguards its food supply.
"You've had the consumer community, the expert community clamoring for this for over a decade," said Michael R. Taylor, a former deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. "What's happened with this outbreak is it has just elevated the intensity of the political focus and the demand or expectation that something be done."
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the actions of Peanut Corp. of America, whose Blakely, Ga., plant has been identified as the source of the contamination that has led to the recall of more than 1,900 products.
Critics say the outbreak has revealed several gaps in the nation's food safety system, including a personnel shortage that has led the FDA to contract out inspections to state officials, the lack of a program to trace food from the farm to the table, the ability of companies to keep tests results revealing contamination to themselves, and the inability of the federal government to order recalls without their cooperation.
"We appear to have a total systemic breakdown," said Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who chaired a hearing last week into the outbreak.
Looking on as Stupak spoke was 3-year-old Jacob Hurley of Portland, Ore. Peter and Brandy Hurley knew last month that their son had contracted salmonella -but they didn't know how. So with the approval of his pediatrician's office, they let him keep eating what his father called "his favorite comfort food": Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.
Peter Hurley denounced Peanut Corp. of America - and the government watchdogs who were unable for months to trace the source of the contamination.
"What is this, China?" he asked. "We need to have a faster 911-oriented medical response for food contamination. ... We need FDA inspectors out there with the authority to stop production immediately when there is a problem. We need the FDA to have the ability to criminally prosecute quickly and effectively."
The FDA says the Lynchburg, Va., company continued to ship peanut butter despite at least 12 tests revealing salmonella in 2007 and 2008, and lawmakers have released internal e-mail messages from company owner Stewart Parnell complaining that the tests were "costing us huge $$$$$" and saying that "we ... desperately at least need to turn the Raw Peanuts on our floor into money."
As the criminal investigation continues, lawmakers have introduced a variety of reforms, from simply bolstering the FDA with more money and tougher laws to the more sweeping move of combining the food safety functions currently divided among the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control into a new agency charged with oversight of the entire food supply.
Adding to calls for reform have been members of the food industry itself. Amid costly recalls of products as disparate as beef, spinach, jalapeno peppers and pet food, organizations such as Kraft Foods and PepsiCo Inc. have joined with food safety advocates and several former FDA commissioners to demand stronger regulation.
They have a strong business incentive. While Peanut Corp. of America made only about 1 percent of the peanut products sold nationwide, retail sales of all peanut butter fell 22 percent in January, according to the Nielsen Co. The makers of Jif and Peter Pan, not implicated in the current outbreak, have embarked on advertising campaigns to persuade customers that their brands are safe.
"Recent events have undermined the confidence of our consumers," said Scott Faber, chief lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "Frankly, in order to continually improve the safety of our food supplies, we need a strong and effective partner" in government.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department is responsible for monitoring meat and poultry, caught advocates by surprise this month when he advocated merging food safety functions into a single agency. His comments came days after President Barack Obama said the government had been slow to identify food contamination.
"I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to," Obama said an interview broadcast by NBC on Today. He said his daughter Sasha ate peanut butter several times a week - "and, you know, I don't want to have to worry about whether she's going to get sick as a consequence to having her lunch."
Obama's interest in the issue predates the current outbreak. Campaigning last summer during a different salmonella outbreak - the one that led to the jalapeno recall - the then-senator introduced legislation intended to improve communication and coordination among federal, state and local agencies.