Food safety laws stalled

Re­cent sal­monella cases fail to ig­nite changes by state, fed­eral law­mak­ers

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Tim Ea­ton

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.”

Ralph Bar­rera

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.

Jar­rad Hen­der­son

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