WASHINGTON — Shirley Mae Almer's family thought she'd died of pneumonia; at least that's what the death certificate said.
Two weeks later, when the salmonella outbreak in peanut products made headlines, her children learned what was really behind the 72-year-old woman's deteriorating health: a piece of toast slathered with contaminated peanut butter.
Since her death in December 2008, her son, Jeff, 47, of Savage, Minn., has taken up the cause of lobbying for more stringent food standards.
"It's to make my mother's death have a little more meaning than just being another statistic," he said.
A food-safety bill that's expected to reach the Senate floor next week would update rules that have governed the Food and Drug Administration for more than four decades and enhance the administration's enforcement authority.
Each year, 300,000 Americans are hospitalized and 5,000 die from food contamination, according to a Health and Human Services Department report that was released earlier this month. While the number of food facilities has increased, the percentage of inspections has decreased, to 22 percent in fiscal year 2008 from 29 percent in 2004.
The bill proposes to give the FDA more enforcement authority, including the power to issue food recalls.
Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group that advocates safer food-production technologies, said it was a "joke the FDA has had to beg" the Peanut Corporation of America for a recall, even after knowing that salmonella was present in a facility.
The FDA has little authority to issue punitive actions. For example, one food facility was closed only after it failed seven inspections within six years.
"I don't think (the FDA) is doing a very good job right now, quite frankly," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said in a conference call with reporters. "They're not empowered to do so by law."
The lack of FDA oversight stems in part from staff cuts in recent years. In 2003, the agency employed 3,167 full-time field staffers. That number dropped 19 percent to 2,569 by 2007, the most recent year for which figures were available.
The bill proposes to increase the FDA's staff to 3,800 during the current fiscal year and expand its food-safety budget by 25 percent, from $662 million in fiscal year 2009 to $825 million in 2010.
Deborah Stockton, the executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, argued that the bill would grant the FDA too much authority.
"The way it's written, it essentially gives the FDA the ability to go into any farm and tell people how to run their farms, which is inappropriate," she said.
Stockton advocates direct farmer-to-consumer transactions, such as local farmers markets, instead.
"We believe in 100 percent accountability," she said. "We believe food safety is not going to be improved by the number of pieces of paper you will generate."
For Pat Mullen, however, whose son, Steven, 17, almost died 14 years ago from E. coli, more needs to be done. Though the E. coli that her son ingested was never traced to its source, Mullen said the incident had changed her family's eating habits.
"To not ensure everyone is safe is horrible for a country as rich as ours," said the 50-year-old Mullen, who's from Encinitas, Calif. "It's extremely frustrating. You feel hopeless. I'm so fortunate I didn't lose my son."
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)
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