The need to improve American food safety
Shirley Almer's family expected her home for Christmas last year. The strong-spirited 72-year-old grandmother from Perham had survived two bouts of cancer and was recovering from an infection with a brief stay in a nursing home.
But Shirley Almer did not make it home for Christmas. She died on Dec. 21. It wasn't cancer that killed her. Instead, it was the peanut butter she liked to spread on her toast every morning. She didn't know it, but the peanut butter was contaminated with deadly salmonella bacteria.
Shirley Almer and two other Minnesotans are among nine deaths officially linked to salmonella-tainted peanut products, which also sickened nearly 700 people nationwide, many of them children.
The recalls of peanut products, spinach and cookie dough in recent months have shaken our confidence and trust in the food we eat. Over 3,800 peanut products were pulled from the shelves, making it the largest food recall in American history.
All because of contamination at a single peanut-processing factory in Georgia. Even some Minnesota food companies, whose own safety standards are among the strictest in the industry, were affected.
We now know that samples from the Georgia peanut plant had tested positive for salmonella on at least 12 separate occasions in the past two years. Yet, the company continued to ship its products.
Nobody was required to report this information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Not the company. Not the private lab that did the testing. Not even the state inspectors. The test results were uncovered only when the federal government invoked bioterrorism laws to get company records.
Whenever contaminated food reaches consumers, Americans understandably question the integrity of our entire food supply. The tainted peanuts are one dramatic example of serious weaknesses in America's food safety system.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that food-borne disease causes 325,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year. The Government Accountability Office identifies food safety oversight as one of the top 10 "high-risk" areas that should command the urgent attention and action of the federal government.
The government has a critical role in ensuring food safety and restoring the public trust. To that end, the FDA must be strengthened. It cannot be an effective watchdog when it is blind -- unable to see relevant food safety information.
That is why I have joined with a bipartisan group of senators to introduce the Food Safety Modernization Act. This legislation will overhaul our food safety system and strengthen our capacity to detect and respond to food-borne illness outbreaks.
Between 2003 and 2006, FDA food safety inspections dropped by 47 percent. We must make sure that the FDA is conducting effective, regular investigations of our food supply -- especially of suspected high-risk facilities.
I've also introduced the Food Safety Rapid Response Act, which focuses on the Centers for Disease Control and state and local capabilities to respond to food-borne illness. The recent outbreaks demonstrate the need for better coordination in responding to a food safety crisis.
This legislation would establish Food Safety Centers of Excellence, modeled on the exemplary work of the Minnesota Department of Health, which was the first agency to trace the salmonella outbreak to the Georgia peanut factory.
Minnesota has earned a national reputation for its rapid, coordinated response to food-borne disease outbreaks. But most states need outside help in these cases. Better testing and improved resources available through a regional center of excellence will help state health officials respond more quickly and appropriately.
In Minnesota, we also have the benefit of working with strong leaders in the food industry including Hormel, General Mills, Land O' Lakes, Schwann's and SuperValu. These companies support efforts to advance food safety legislation and understand that public and private collaboration is essential to improving our food safety response system.
These bills are now making their way through the Senate committee process, and I am working for their swift passage to improve the safety of our nation's food supply.
As a former prosecutor, I have always believed that the first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens. In this most basic duty, our government failed Shirley Almer and the many others who were harmed by salmonella-tainted peanut products.
We owe it to them -- and all Americans -- to fix what's broken in our food safety system. There is no time to waste in taking the right steps to protect our food.