Commentary: Too many holes in food safety net

This editorial appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

It will make you sick. And in the case of the nation's food safety network, that could well be the literal truth. In the wake of the salmonella-tainted products traced to the Peanut Corp. of America, believed to be linked to nine deaths and over 20,000 illnesses, The New York Times reports that the country's food safety inspection system is riddled with problems.

Among them: not enough inspectors in the Food and Drug Administration to cover the places involved in putting our food in the stores; private inspectors doing safety audits and being paid by companies with an interest in seeing to it that no problems are found; a failure on the FDA's part to pay attention. That failure is reflected by the agency's push to expand the use of private auditors to inspect more than 200,000 foreign facilities that send food to the U.S., even though it knows there are variations in the quality of private audits.

President Obama has vowed an improvement at the FDA, and none too soon. The Peanut Corp. example is a poster child for how a system that is supposed to protect people instead leaves them at risk.

In that plant, an inspection was done by a private contractor. The company knew he was coming. He apparently was unaware that peanuts are particularly susceptible to salmonella poisoning, and get this: he wasn't required to test for salmonella, anyway. He gave the Peanut Corp. facility a "Superior" rating in a March report for the American Institute of Baking (AIB), which contracts with companies to do private audits.

One scandal later, federal officials found horrendous problems at the plant with salmonella. They determined that tainted peanuts and paste products had been shipped for at least nine months.

To read the complete editorial, visit The (Raleigh) News & Observer.