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FDA knew of contamination problems

WASHINGTON – The Food and Drug Administration has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant and on California spinach farms that led to disease outbreaks that killed three people, sickened hundreds, and forced one of the biggest product recalls in U.S. history, documents and interviews show.

Overwhelmed by huge growth in the number of food processors and imports, however, the agency took only limited steps to address the problems and relied on producers to police themselves, according to agency documents.

Congressional critics and consumer advocates said both episodes show that the agency is incapable of adequately protecting the safety of the food supply.

FDA officials conceded that its system needs to be overhauled to meet today’s demands but denied that the agency could have done anything to prevent either contamination episode.

Last week, the FDA notified California state health officials that hogs on a farm in the state had likely eaten feed laced with melamine, an industrial chemical blamed for the deaths of dozens of pets in recent weeks. Officials are trying to determine whether the chemical’s presence in the hogs represents a threat to humans. Pork from animals raised on the farm has been recalled. The FDA has said its inspectors would not have likely found the contaminated food before problems, which called a massive pet food recall, arose.

The outbreaks point to a need to completely overhaul the way the agency does business, said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s food safety arm, which is responsible for safeguarding 80 percent of the nation’s food supply.

Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce committee will hold a hearing into the unprecedented spate of recalls.

In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, they left and failed to follow up.

Earlier this year, a salmonella outbreak traced to the plant’s Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter brands sickened more than 400 people in 44 states. The likely cause, ConAgra said, was moisture from a roof leak and a malfunctioning sprinkler system that activated dormant salmonella in the plant, which is now closed.

The FDA has known for even longer about illnesses among people who ate spinach and other greens from California’s Salinas Valley, the source of outbreaks over the past six months that have killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states. The subsequent recall was the largest ever for leafy vegetables.

In a letter sent to California growers in late 2005, Brackett wrote, “FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of food borne illness since 1995 caused by (E. coli bacteria) for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated. … In one additional case, fresh-cut spinach was implicated. These 19 outbreaks account for approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths.”