WASHINGTON - Families victimized by tainted spinach and peanut butter put a human face on recent high-profile outbreaks of food-borne illness Tuesday, urging lawmakers to strengthen federal oversight of the nation's food supply.
"I can't protect them from spinach - only you guys can," said Michael Armstrong, as he and his wife, Elizabeth, cradled daughters Ashley, 2, and Isabella, 5.
The two girls fell ill - Ashley gravely so - in September after eating a salad made with a bag of the leafy greens contaminated by E. coli.
That and other incidents of contamination have raised questions not only about the U.S. food supply but efforts by the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies to keep it safe.
"I hope these hearings will help alert the American people, Congress and the administration to the seriousness of this issue," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. "If it is not taken seriously, these kinds of poisonings can, and will, happen again. Food poisonings will happen to you, to me and to our children and our pets."
Also testifying was Gary Pruden, joined by his 11-year-old son, Sean, who was seriously sickened in November by E. coli after eating at a Taco Bell restaurant. Pruden said a key element of trade and commerce is trust - whether placed in accountants, airline pilots or auto mechanics.
"That is also extended to the trust in the food we order or buy from the grocery store - that it's edible and safe," Pruden told the subcommittee. "Without that trust, commerce cannot work. And where failure occurs, oversight is required."
The safety of domestic food was questioned anew last fall when officials traced a nationwide E. coli outbreak to contaminated spinach processed by Natural Selection Foods LLC. Three people died and nearly 200 others were sickened. More recently, contaminated peanut butter and pet food have been recalled.
"I don't see the latest string of incidents as aberrations," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. "It's become a systemic problem and it calls for systemic solutions."
DeGette has introduced legislation to give the FDA and Agriculture Department the authority to mandate recalls, in line with a proposal by the Government Accountability Office. Other legislative efforts include proposals to create a single Food Safety Administration and develop a uniform reporting system to track contaminated food.
In January, the government's fragmented food safety system was added to a congressional "high risk" list, indicating its inefficiencies leave it vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse. Fifteen federal agencies administer at least 30 laws pertaining to food safety. The FDA, however, is the main food safety agency.
A panel of officials from companies involved in the recalls expressed their sympathy, sadness and support for victims of the outbreaks. None said a government-mandated recall would have changed how they dealt, voluntarily, with removing their products from the marketplace.
"I don't know what the right answer is, but I do know what the wrong answer is: It is to continue doing what we're doing, when it's not working," Michael Armstrong told Stupak when asked how the food safety system should be changed.
The popular Peter Pan brand of peanut butter was the subject of a nationwide recall in February after a salmonella outbreak. More than 400 people were sickened, and the recall cost manufacturer ConAgra Foods Inc. at least $50 million. The company plans to reopen in August the idled plant where the peanut butter was made.
Terri Marshall said her mother-in-law, Mora Lou Marshall, has been hospitalized or in a nursing home since early January, after she became seriously ill from eating Peter Pan. The elder Marshall, 85, had kept a jar of the peanut butter on her nightstand to supplement her diet - and had unwittingly continued to eat it even after falling ill.
"The very food she thought would improve her health had begun to ravage her body," Terri Marshall said.
Pet food has also had its problems.
In March, Menu Foods recalled 60 million cans of dog and cat food after the deaths of 16 pets, mostly cats, that had eaten products contaminated with the chemical melamine.
Other companies have since recalled pet foods also tainted by melamine, found to contaminate some wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate imported from China.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, called on the Chinese to allow FDA inspectors to visit the plants where the tainted ingredients were made. The agency has awaited letters from the Chinese government needed to obtain visas for its inspectors.
"My message, and I think the message of this subcommittee on a bipartisan basis, to the Chinese government is plain: Stop these shenanigans," Barton said.
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