CDC, FDA, ConAgra or Peter Pan himself, Who’s to Blame for the Underreporting of Sickening and Potentially Deadly Salmonella & E-Coli Food Poisoning Cases?

This week, cases of the dangerous food-borne illness e-coli were reported in several states, including California, Arizona and New York. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control revealed that incidences of salmonella linked to contaminated Peter Pan and Great Value brands of peanut butter were far more wide spread than previously thought. These revelations, coming as they do on the heels of recent scandals involving tainted spinach and poisoned animal foods, have many Americans questioning the safety of the nation’s food supply.

Late last month, the CDC reported that confirmed cases of salmonella caused by the Peter Pan and Great Value brands of Peanut Butter had grown by nearly 200 since the agency’s last report in March. The CDC now puts the number of individuals sickened by the peanut butter at more than 600 in 47 states. The toll also included 2 deaths. However, because not all cases of salmonella are reported, some believe these numbers could be much higher. It could be some time, if ever, before the full scope of the problem becomes apparent.

Several government agencies, as well as the peanut butter’s manufacturer ConAgra, have come under fire for their slow response to the outbreak. Though an unusually high incidence of salmonella poisoning was first noticed in Tennessee in November 2006, it is thought that the first illnesses may have occurred as early as March 2006. It wasn’t until February 2007 that the CDC was able to trace the source of the illness to peanut butter produced by a ConAgra factory in Sylvester Georgia. That same month, ConAgra finally issued a recall of its <"">Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butter produced at that factory.

The federal agency responsible for insuring food safety was also been taken to task for its role in the incident. In April 2007, the Washington Post published documents proving that the FDA, as well as ConAgra, knew of contamination problems at the plant as far back as 2004. The agency took few corrective measures, assuming that ConAgra would address the situation itself. ConAgra apparently did little to nothing to fix the problem.

And this was not the first time the FDA knew about food safety problems but did little to correct them. The Post article also cited evidence that the agency had been aware of problems with contaminated spinach and other California greens as far back as 1995. In the fall of 2006, hundreds of people were sickened and three were killed after contracting e-coli from contaminated California Spinach.

Critics say that under-funding and a lack of trained inspectors at the FDA have left the nation’s food supply in a perilous condition. A congressional fact sheet published by Henry Waxman (D-Calif) in 2006 said funding for the FDA fell short by $135 million. The number of scientists employed by the FDA’s food division dropped from 1,000 to 800 in the past three years. This decrease in personnel and the ongoing budget cuts have overwhelmed the agency, greatly impacting its ability to watch over the food supply. The results of this shortfall are apparent — according to the CDC, contaminated foods cause 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year.

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