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Food safety flawed Peanut processing plant case exposes shortcomings in protection

For many years, knowledgeable people have suggested that the various food safety functions of the federal and state governments should be consolidated under a single federal agency. Few, if any, had ever suggested that that agency should be the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

But, early last week, there was the FBI, raiding the Virginia offices and a Georgia processing plant operated by the Peanut Corp. of America. Agents were looking into the apparent salmonella contamination of the many peanut products made in that plant, products that have been linked to more than 600 illnesses and eight deaths across the country.

Meanwhile, in Texas, another PCA facility was shut down after state officials found contamination -- dead rats and birds -- in the processing plant's crawl spaces. Texas health authorities ordered a recall of any products ever made in the plant, which opened in 2005.

The image of the feds busting into the offices and factories of companies owned by folks who apparently don't care a fig how deadly their peanuts can be may be gratifying. It certainly makes for good news footage. And it led to the suspect filing for bankruptcy.

But any food safety system that emphasizes after-the-fact retribution is not what we need to protect our families, and not what we should be getting for our tax dollars.

Food processing giants who did not deal with PCA are today watching their apparently safe peanut butter and other peanut products gather dust on shelves across the country as the public tries to sort out the safe from the tainted. Those corporations ought to be the loudest voices for a new, consolidated and, most important, credible system of food inspection and quality control that would help them put quality products into the hands of eager consumers.

They should even be willing to pay for it.

Don't hold your breath.

The nation's food safety system has never made much sense. Different agencies -- the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission -- have responsibilities for different products and different parts of the supply chain. None of them is adequately staffed or funded for their part of the job, or always able to note when something that should be part of the job falls through the cracks.

One effort to compensate has been turning certain inspection duties over to state food and health agencies. That was the situation in both Georgia and Texas, where nobody from any level of government noticed what was going on at PCA facilities until an impossible-to-ignore outbreak of poisonings was traced back.

Part of the problem has always been the fact that some agencies, particularly federal and state agriculture departments, have a mind-set of supporting food producers and processors, helping them to move products and protect jobs, rather than focus on the safety of consumers.

But even that makes no sense. Winning and keeping the confidence of the buying public through a stiff regime of inspections and recalls would be the best favor the government, at all levels, could do for the food industry.

Just ask the bankers.

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