Salmonella outbreak proves more food should be irradiated

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Food and Drug Administration has reported a genetic match between the Salmonella found in a batch of peanut butter at an institution in Minnesota and the strain of salmonella that has caused illnesses in Minnesota and othe...

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Food and Drug Administration has reported a genetic match between the Salmonella found in a batch of peanut butter at an institution in Minnesota and the strain of salmonella that has caused illnesses in Minnesota and other states.

As a result, the FDA says it "is conducting a very active and dynamic investigation into the source" of the salmonella outbreak. The FDA has traced a source of contamination to a plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America, which manufactures peanut butter that is served in institutional settings such as long-term care facilities and cafeterias, and peanut paste used as an ingredient in products including cakes, cookies, crackers, candies, cereal and ice cream.

As a result of the finding, Peanut Corp. voluntarily recalled all peanut butter produced on or after Aug. 8, 2008, and all peanut paste produced on or after Sept. 26, in its Blakely, Ga., plant.

Public policy

According to an Associated Press report by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar that was published Jan. 18, "so far, more than 470 people have gotten sick in 43 states, and at least 90 had to be hospitalized. At least six deaths are being blamed on the outbreak."


The recall has been met with modest indifference with newspapers in unaffected areas consigning it to inside pages, if they print it at all.

Given the frequency of these events, we want to raise several issues of public policy.

First, we are sure that the public wouldn't react with modest indifference if six people had died of bird flu. But because Salmonella is a common pathogen that causes food contamination on a regular basis, the public response is minimal. Clearly, known risks are taken far more casually than exotic or unknown risks.

Some would suggest that these deaths were unnecessary. After all, we have the means at hand to eliminate salmonella, E. coli and other biologically based foodborne pathogens -- irradiation. At the present time, irradiation has been taken off the table as a means of preventing many of these pathogens in our food supply because of the potential for public outcry.

Sanitation standards

I have read the rationale of the opponents of irradiation: it would allow food processors to lower their sanitation standards, and it may cause slight changes -- whose long-term effects are unknown -- in molecules in the irradiated food.

No consumer wants food sanitation standards to be adjusted downward because of the use of irradiation or for any other reason. Such lowering of sanitation standards need not be, and should not be, allowed.

Consider milk pasteurization. As any Grade A milk producer or processor can attest, the pasteurization of milk is only one aspect of the sanitation protocol for handling and processing milk.


Under no stretch of imagination is milk pasteurization a cover for lax sanitation practices. Systems would need to be set up so the same would be true for irradiation.

Among the things that can be said about irradiation are that irradiation does not result in any radioactive properties in the irradiated food; has been approved by a long set of studies; and can prevent a vast number of illnesses and the deaths of a lesser, but significant, number of the young and old -- the most vulnerable populations-- and those in between.

At what time does foodborne related deaths become more than an issue of personal preference? When does it become a matter of public health policy? When does the public insist on well-tested and effective measures to prevent these deaths?


Second, the authority for assuring the safety of our food supply presently is divided among a number of federal agencies, primarily the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA. There are historical reasons for this division, but now it often boils down to turf-protection by the several agencies.

When do we begin to consider the safety of our food supply and the effectiveness of making one agency responsible for ensuring that all of what we eat is safe from all contaminants, both chemical and biological?

Perhaps food safety needs to be separated from drug approval and all of the food safety activities of both the FDA and USDA combined into a new agency with a clear focus. That agency should be given the statutory authority to set and enforce uniform food safety rules and protocols.

Third, it seems strange that much of our food safety depends upon voluntary recalls. We have read the legal and administrative reasons for this strategy, but they still come up lacking in our mind. When public safety is at stake, does it not make sense to allow public authorities to institute a recall instead of depending on companies to institute the action?


Foodborne illness incidents rise to the point that they garner the attention of the public, but an examination of the recall records at USDA and the FDA indicated that foodborne illnesses occur frequently.

While we have one of the best food safety systems in the world, there is no reason why we can't make it better.

Editor's Note: Ray is director of the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center in Knoxville.

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