Saturday, January 31, 2009

Killer peanuts, part 2

Not surprisingly, this being Georgia, the news is turning into all peanuts, all the time. I have no clue how much coverage Georgia's troubled peanut industry has been getting in the rest of the country but here we can't get away from it. And you know what the (Republican) legislature has proposed as a solution? Passing a law that would require food processing plants to inspect themselves.

Yep. You read that right. I was treated last night to seeing several Georgia legislators bloviating about how the way to solve the problem of contaminated food is to ask the people who were quite willing to sell "unfit for human consumption" (or so the Canadians decided when PCA [Peanut Corporation of America] tried to ship some peanut products into their country last year) peanut paste to monitor themselves.

News flash, guys. They already were. And they lab shopped. When they got a result saying salmonella was present in their product, they kept sending samples off to different labs until they got a negative one back. They had a choice when they found salmonella bacteria present -- they could have looked for the source, cleaned up their plant, and then retested (a process that would undoubtedly cost them money) or they could take the cheap route (lab shop) and hope that no one died. And, even if someone did, well, the odds were that it wouldn't be traced back to their plant anyway.

Obviously, someone guessed wrong. At last count there were at least 8 people dead. It appears heads actually will roll. There's talk of criminal prosecutions, possibly under homeland security anti-terrorist laws -- maybe we shouldn't be talking about closing Gitmo; maybe we should be reserving the space for PCA managers?

The PCA bet that even if people got sick it would never be traced back to the Blakely, Georgia, processing plant was actually a pretty good one. Odds were in favor of the contaminated products being sold for years without anyone realizing it. The patchwork quilt of agencies responsible for monitoring public health threats in this country is pretty fragmented; communication between them isn't as coordinated as it should be; turf wars and responsibility ducking (aka buck passing) are common. Then when you add in the fact that for most people salmonellosis is a mild infection, a minor inconvenience, that their immune systems shake off pretty quickly, it's easy to see why a food processor could assume no one would ever know. We all have occasional bouts of diarrhea that we brush off as mild food poisoning or a touch of the flu, but unless it goes on for more multiple days and turns into a classic bloody flux we're not going to see a doctor about it. We'll reach for the Immodium, pour PediaLyte into the kids, and let it go at that. It's probable that if the Blakely plant managers had been smart enough to do a thorough cleaning of the facility after finding contamination, they would have gotten away with shipping the original bad batch.

However, when you ship batch after batch, which is apparently what they did -- two years worth of salmonella-laced peanut paste? -- the odds increase that sooner or later someone with a weakened immune system is going to get hit, he or she will end up in the hospital, and a doctor will order the stool tests to confirm the diagnosis. And that will set the investigative wheels in motion: the hospital lab finds a strain of salmonella, the hospital lab notifies the local or state health department (they have no choice in the matter; every state in the U.S. considers salmonella a reportable disease), the health department does a confirmatory test and starts the epidemiologic study to determine the source (first step: interview the patient or the patient's family) while at the same time sending a sample off to the Centers for Disease Control for gene typing. Multiply that by however many times people get sick enough to go to the hospital, and patterns start to emerge. One or two cases in one city, and the investigation stops there. Multiple cases of the same type scattered nation-wide? That's an outbreak, and sooner or later the epidemiologists will figure out where it came from.

So, what's the solution for preventing future outbreaks? For a start, how about restaffing the Food and Drug Administration to the point where it can actually do its job? One of the things that's come out in the past month is that FDA did not inspect the PCA plant for five years, from 2001 through 2006. Why? Among other things, there simply were not enough food inspectors left working for the agency to inspect every place that's supposed to be inspected on a regular basis. Finally, in 2006 FDA contracted with the Georgia Department of Agriculture. The GDA did inspect, did find problems, but apparently never did a follow-up. GDA has the same problem FDA does -- too many responsibilities, not enough staff.

For the past 30 years we've been hearing that government is the problem. According to the Republicans, all we have to do is cut taxes, privatize everything, and life will be wonderful. We've witnessed the steady gutting of regulations and oversight in multiple areas, from infrastructure to food safety. Particularly food safety. FDA was established following muckraking exposes of the meat packing industry in the early 1900s, but in the past 20 or 30 years has been turned into a rubber stamp for the pharmaceutical industry. Keeping the food supply safe for Americans has been sadly neglected, not through lack of will on the part of FDA staff but through sheer lack of resources. The agency needs to be rebuilt, restaffed, and encouraged to go out and do the job Teddy Roosevelt intended for it to do.


  1. People hate regulation until some kind of tragedy comes to their door. Morons.

  2. Great post.

    I'm hoping we will now have 4 to 8 years of sanity re: government regulation.


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