Lawmakers Delve Into Peanut Products' Safety

The federal government has so far identified 600 people who've gotten sick from salmonella traced to peanuts. Scientists estimate there are 30 or more actual cases for every one that's reported. Nine deaths have been linked to the outbreak, and it's led to one of the biggest food recalls in recent years. A House subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday on the salmonella outbreak.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The federal government has so far identified 600 people who've gotten sick from salmonella traced to peanuts. And scientists estimate there are 30 or more actual cases for every one that's reported. Nine deaths have been linked to the outbreak, and it's led to one of the biggest food recalls in recent years. On Capitol Hill yesterday, a House subcommittee held a hearing about the outbreak. Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, sits on the panel and showed just how personal this outbreak could be.

EDWARD MARKEY: Peanut butter was probably half of my diet as a child. It's one of those foods that is really good for you and tastes great too. But now mothers and fathers across America are worried about salmonella and don't know what to put in their kids' lunches.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Joanne Silberner was at the hearing and joins us now to talk about it. Good morning.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Emotions seem to be running pretty high there at that hearing. What was the atmosphere altogether?

SILBERNER: Well, it started out with testimony from some of the victims. There was a man who lost his 72-year-old mother. Another lost his dad. And then there was the father of a three-year-old who survived but really gave the family a scare. So we heard from those people and saw just how serious this outbreak has been.

MONTAGNE: Now, we just had another salmonella outbreak and it was thought to have been sourced to tomatoes, but then it turned out to be jalapeño and Serrano peppers. And then a couple of years back there was a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter. Are foods getting less safe?

SILBERNER: Well, we're changing the way we eat and we're coming up with more and more problems. And the inspections just can't keep up. I mean, the FDA hasn't really picked up on its number of inspectors. It hasn't been funded to do that. They've got much more to inspect. There's food coming from all over the world and you can't be everywhere. They can certainly be more places than they've been and they're trying to do that. They've just set up places from overseas.

And when you look at that pepper outbreak that was last year that came from one farm in Mexico and it spread all over because the peppers were distributed all over.

MONTAGNE: And this current outbreak traced to a peanut plant; it was one peanut plant. It accounts for only one percent of the peanut market in this country, but again managed to send its product everywhere.

SILBERNER: That's right. And it's really the new food reality that companies like Kellogg or Keebler, they will buy products from all over and then put them into their products, then we eat that final product. We no longer eat locally grown foods from a single source. Foods are combined.

MONTAGNE: And so while this current outbreak affects something like 13,000 products being recalled, we should emphasize that many peanut products are not involved. And some of them have PR campaigns to say that their products are safe. Talk to us about that.

SILBERNER: Yeah. There's a Web site from a peanut group that lists products that are specifically safe. And certainly what you buy in jars in the store, the peanut butter there, that's safe. Now, the company did say that it sold some product to dollar stores. That has been recalled.

MONTAGNE: Joanne, thanks very much.

SILBERNER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Joanne Silberner.

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Peanut Company President Pleads The Fifth

Rep. Greg Waldon holds a jar of candy peanut products i i

hide captionRep. Greg Walden holds a jar of candy peanut products while questioning Stewart Parnell, president of the Peanut Corporation of America. Parnell refused to answer questions before the panel.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Rep. Greg Waldon holds a jar of candy peanut products

Rep. Greg Walden holds a jar of candy peanut products while questioning Stewart Parnell, president of the Peanut Corporation of America. Parnell refused to answer questions before the panel.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A House subcommittee on Wednesday tried to get to the bottom of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 600 people — perhaps even thousands — and is linked to nine deaths.

The hearing revealed some details of the outbreak, but not the biggest ones. What every lawmaker on the subcommittee wanted to know was why the Peanut Corporation of America ran a plant with obvious problems, and why the company shipped product that had tested positive for salmonella.

The company's president, Stewart Parnell, had been subpoenaed, and the hearing began with a question from the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Bart Stupak of Michigan:

"Mr. Parnell, did you or any officials at the Peanut Corporation of America ever place food products into the interstate commerce that you knew to be contaminated with salmonella?" Stupak asked.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your question based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution," Parnell replied.

Investigators from the Food and Drug Administration examined the records at the Blakely, Ga., plant that is the source of the contamination. They found 12 instances where initial testing showed the presence of salmonella in peanut products, and the company knowingly shipped those products.

Stupak also asked Parnell if he had listened to a previous panel of people at the hearing who testified about how their families had been seriously affected by the outbreak. Again, Parnell wouldn't answer.

"I just asked you if you heard the other panel," Stupak prodded.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your question based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution," Parnell said.

And Stupak asked Parnell if he considers food poisoning the cost of doing business for Peanut Corp. Again, Parnell declined to answer.

Parnell's refusals followed emotional testimony from the son of a Korean War veteran whose dad died; a police officer from Oregon whose 3-year-old son got sick; and Jeffrey Almer of Minnesota, whose mother, Shirley, died four days before Christmas after suffering serious cramping and diarrhea from salmonella.

"Shirley Almer had a lot of sissou, which in her Finnish heritage describes a person with spunk, fortitude and determination," Almer said.

She had been successfully treated for lung cancer in 2007, for a brain tumor in 2008, and she was recovering from a urinary tract infection at a rehab center when she ate some peanut butter.

"Cancer couldn't claim her, but peanut butter did," Almer said.

The meeting gave many committee members a sense of deja vu, including Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon.

"I remember our previous food-safety investigations into E. coli and spinach, E. coli and meat, salmonella and peanut butter, salmonella and jalapenos, now salmonella and a variety of peanut-containing products," Walden said.

During the hearing, Walden held up a jar that contained recalled products and asked Parnell if he'd eat them. Once again, Parnell refused to comment, citing his Fifth Amendment rights.

The hearing focused not just on Peanut Corporation of America, but on whether the FDA should have done more to prevent the outbreak.

Stephen Sundlof, who directs the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified that the FDA is writing tougher guidelines for food inspection, and that companies currently don't have to tell the agency if their own testing shows salmonella. State and federal testing is sporadic at best.

Sundlof also did something the FDA doesn't usually do — he asked for more power for his agency.

"At this time, we want to highlight the need for enhanced authorities in several areas," he said. "No. 1, authority for FDA to issue preventive controls for high risk foods."

And, he says, the agency would like the authority to get to food records easily, without going to court or threatening the food manufacturer or, in the case of the current outbreak, using food safety provisions meant to apply to bioterrorism investigations.

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