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Kellogg chief calls for overhaul of federal food-safety system

Associated Press / March 19, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The top official at Kellogg, the giant food-maker that lost $70 million worth of peanut products in the recent salmonella outbreak, is urging lawmakers to overhaul the nation's food safety system.

Kellogg Co. chief executive David Mackay wants food safety placed under a new leader in the Health and Human Services department. He also called for new requirements that all food companies have written safety plans, annual federal inspections of facilities that make high-risk foods, and other reforms.

Mackay's strong endorsement of major changes could boost President Obama's efforts to overhaul the system. Last week, Obama launched a special review of food-safety programs, which are split among several departments and agencies and rely in some cases on decades-old laws. Critics say more funding is needed for inspections and basic research.

"The recent outbreak illustrated that the US food safety system must be strengthened," Mackay said in remarks prepared for a hearing today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The salmonella outbreak has sickened at least 691 people and is being blamed for nine deaths. The source was a small Georgia peanut-processing plant, which allegedly shipped products managers knew were contaminated with salmonella.

More than 3,490 products have been recalled, including some Kellogg's Austin and Keebler peanut butter sandwich crackers. The Georgia plant has been shut down, and its owner, Peanut Corp. of America, is under criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

Mackay said Kellogg's had to recall more than 7 million cases of crackers and cookies, at a cost of $65 million to $70 million. Kellogg's began purchasing peanut paste from Peanut Corp. in July 2007, after the supplier passed quality checks and audits.

"Audit findings reported no concerns that the facility may have had any pathogen-related issues or any potential contamination," Mackay said in his statement. "None of the salmonella or hygiene issues that have been reported by regulators over the past several months were noted in any of the audit reports provided to Kellogg."

FDA inspectors swooped down on the Georgia plant in January and found multiple sanitary violations. The problems included moisture leaks, improper storage, and openings that could allow rodents into the facility. FDA tests found salmonella contamination within the plant. After invoking bioterrorism laws, the FDA obtained Peanut Corp. records that showed the company's own tests repeatedly found salmonella in finished products.

How persistent problems at the Georgia plant managed to escape the attention of state inspectors and independent auditors is one of the main unanswered questions in the investigation.

Mackay's call for a food safety "authority" within the HHS department appears similar to legislation from Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat. Her plan would take food safety away from FDA and give it to a new agency within the department. The FDA is responsible for most foods, while the Agriculture Department inspects meat and poultry. DeLauro's plan would not affect the USDA.

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