Congress Explores Recent Fatal Pet Food Cases

A congressional panel holds a hearing on contaminated food — spinach, peanut butter and canned foods — that have put the health of people and their pets at risk. The question is whether food producers, manufacturers and the federal government were negligent in ensuring that the food was produced in safe environments.

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A House subcommittee is taking a close look at whether the Food and Drug Administration is giving short thrift to the food part of its mandate. Recent problems with tainted spinach, peanut butter, and now pet food, have lawmakers asking whether the FDA needs to do more to protect the public.

NPR's Julie Rovner has the story.

JULIE ROVNER: Michael and Elizabeth Armstrong of Indianapolis, Indiana thought the bad spinach they served their daughters last August was perfectly safe to eat in a salad. Within days, however, both five-year-old Isabella and two-year-old Ashley were ill. Isabella quickly recovered, but Ashley didn't. By mid-September, Michael Armstrong told a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee this morning, Ashley had been diagnosed with severe complication caused by E. coli.

Mr. MICHAEL ARMSTRONG (Father of children poisoned by contaminated vegetables; Resident, Indiana): The next week, about a week when we were in intensive care, it was pretty rough. We really didn't know if she's going to make it. At the time, she was on dialysis. She required blood transfusions. Her kidneys had shut down. She had pancreatitis. She had brain swelling. It's a really nasty syndrome.

ROVNER: The Armstrongs themselves tracked the spinach Ashley had eaten back to the lot that had been recalled. Today, Ashley is on several medications and will soon need a kidney transplant. Her mother told the subcommittee their lives have been forever changed by the incident.

Ms. ELIZABETH ARMSTRONG (Mother of children poisoned by contaminated vegetables; Resident, Indiana)): We always enjoyed eating very healthy. We love fresh fruits and vegetables. Now, we can't eat them, one, because of Ashley's illness. We have to watch the high potassium and content. But, also, we just don't trust that they're safe anymore.

ROVNER: And Michael Armstrong urged lawmakers to act.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: These are my little girls. It's my job to protect them, and that I teach them everything I can. But the one thing I found out is I can't protect them from spinach. Only you guys can. You can protect them, I can't. And I don't know what the right answer is, but I know what the wrong answer is, and that is to keep doing what we're doing when it's not working.

ROVNER: Families affected by the tainted food weren't the only ones urging Congress to act at the hearing, so did the Government Accountability Office. GAO's Lisa Shames said Congress needs to give FDA the authority to recall food products, something it currently lacks. She also said Congress needs to better distribute food inspection funding.

Ms. LISA SHAMES (Government Accountability Office): For example, FDA is responsible for regulating about 80 percent of the food supply but accounts for about 20 percent of food inspection resources, whereas USDA, the Department of Agriculture, is responsible for regulating about 20 percent of the food supply but receives the majority of food inspection resources.

ROVNER: And even when FDA does inspections, sometimes they don't prevent problems. Charles Sweat, CEO of Natural Selection Food, the salad processor implicated in the tainted spinach outbreak, said the FDA was actually at his plant the week the bad spinach came through.

Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): Did they do any testing or they just come in and look around?

ROVNER: That's subcommittee chairman Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan.

Mr. CHARLES SWEAT (CEO, Natural Selection Food): What they do is they come in to look at our documents and they reviewed all our compliance with all of our programs and controls.

Rep. STUPAK: But you're not required to do any testing?

Mr. SWEAT: The voluntary regulations and guidelines from the FDA do not require any testing so far.

Rep. STUPAK: So they're just looking at how you're handling a product?

Mr. SWEAT: They're just looking at our processes. That's correct.

ROVNER: Also at the hearing, the heads of two farms involved in a case of tainted pet food testified, the contaminant involved, melamine, has already been traced back to wheat gluten purchased from China, but now they think they know why the melamine was added: to make substandard gluten more valuable. Paul Henderson is the CEO of Menu Foods.

Mr. PAUL HENDERSON (CEO, Menu Foods): Melamine would make wheat gluten appear to have a higher protein content that was actually the case. For a seller who knows how the industry testing methods work, this will allow them to cheat buyers.

ROVNER: The FDA only yesterday got permission from China to allow U.S. inspectors in. It took intervention from lawmakers, another lapse in the agency's authority. The FDA will get its chance to respond at a separate hearing next month.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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SIEGEL: America's intelligence agencies are increasingly headed up by military men and some analysts say that's a problem. That story when we continue with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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