Food safety laws stalled
Recent salmonella cases fail to ignite changes by state, federal lawmakers
Wails from the room of their 5month-old son startled a young Austin couple on an August night back in 2008. When Megan and Shawn Hunter got to their son, Maxwell, his lower abdomen was swollen, and his diaper was full.
Doctors eventually determined that the problem was salmonella.
Maxwell was still being breast-fed, so it seemed hard to believe that he had ingested any food, let alone tainted food.
But the pathogen was traced to a package of peanut butter crackers, Megan Hunter said. Maxwell was somehow exposed to the crackers’ filling, which contained the same strain of salmonella connected to nine deaths across the country, according to Megan Hunter and her lawyer, Ron Simon, who is representing the family in a lawsuit against the Peanut Corp. of America and Kellogg Co.
“It was one of those freak things,” Megan Hunter said.
Maxwell recovered and had no permanent ill effects, but nearly two years
See FOOD, A7
Continued from A1 after a tainted peanut product sickened hundreds of people and led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, millions of Americans continue to get sick from food-borne pathogens. Little has changed on the regulatory front, either through actions in Congress or in the Texas Legislature. And with Texas facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall next year, any future changes will be difficult.
Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, said both state and federal systems that are supposed to ensure a safe food supply remain inadequate because of money.
“It’s something that you hear repeatedly,” she said. “Public health is not going to be spared.”
In Texas, Peanut Corp. of America operated a processing plant in Plainview that was not registered with — and therefore never inspected by — state health officials. Health officials eventually shut the plant because of unsanitary conditions. Since then, the Texas Department of State Health Services has hired a few temporary workers to try to identify unlicensed businesses, said Carrie Williams, a department spokeswoman.
So far, the agency has found about 350 companies that were not properly registered with the health department. But there’s still a lot of looking to do to check whether some of the more than 55,000 businesses registered with the state comptroller manufacture or process food, which would require them to register with the health department.
Williams said the agency also has hired food safety in- spectors in recent months, though seven positions are still vacant. The state’s current 37 inspectors are responsible for more than 20,000 food processing facilities. A state health department document obtained by the American-Statesman says the ideal ratio of inspectors is one for every 250 locations. But the current ratio is closer to 1-to-600.
“Are we where we want to be? No. Could we be conducting more inspections if we have more people? Yes,” Williams said. “There’s always room to improve.”
On the national level, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a food safety bill last year, but senators haven’t taken up the issue. And time is running out as senators prepare for a summer recess.
If passed, the legislation would increase inspections at all food facilities; require the food industry to develop plans to identify hazards and create preventive measures; give the Food and Drug Administration expanded access to records and testing results; and grant FDA authority to order recalls, shut down dirty facilities and access Jason Hedlund, 33, checks seafood during an inspection last week at Whole Foods in Austin. The store has done more than food safety laws require and is testing a new computerized system that alerts supervisors if food is not at the proper temperature. records.
With the government and regulators making little headway, individuals and businesses are taking on the responsibility themselves.
Simon said he is doing his part though the courts.
“The only thing keeping these companies in check is the threat of litigation,” he said.
Simon added that executives at some companies have gone beyond the laws to make sure food is safe. He pointed to Austin-based Whole Foods Inc.
Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery said Austin store employees are testing a computerized system for checking food temperature that alerts supervisors in the event of problems.
“We see the law as a minimum requirement, and we are always proactive and look at areas to raise the bar,” she said in an e-mail. “Our approach is more of a preventative one, and we work with our suppliers and at the store level to ensure we meet and exceed what is required to stay ahead.”
As for the Hunters, much has changed around their house since Maxwell became ill, as they have abandoned their trust in the government to keep them safe from foodborne pathogens.
Crackers like the ones that the Hunters claim made their baby sick won’t be found in their cupboard.
Maxwell, now 2, eats mainly organic food, and the family washes all foods thoroughly and cooks meat all the way through.
They try to eat only locally produced food — so they know where it comes from. They frequent farmers markets.
The Hunters and other claimants who are involved in the lawsuit could be eligible for payments out of a $12 million insurance policy, Simon said.
A finalized settlement is expected next month. Megan Hunter declined to say how much they were expecting. But Simon said, “It will significantly change the Hunters’ life.”
No matter what happens, Megan Hunter said she hopes her lawsuit helps raise awareness of the need for more oversight to protect America’s food supply.
“At the very least,” she said, “we have to be part of the fight.”
Megan Hunter of Austin is part of a lawsuit against two food companies because her son, Maxwell, 2, became sick with salmonella. Maxwell was 5 months old at the time.