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Going nuts over latest food safety scare

April 4, 2009

Another one bites the dust. Or in this case, nuts. Just a few weeks ago, it was an outbreak of salmonella over a tainted batch of peanuts. This week, it’s pistachios. It’s being termed ‘Nutgate.’ You may laugh, but dare I say this was a devastating financial blow to manufacturers – peanuts in the realm of over $1B, not to mention the people who got sick and will eventually litigate over it. The fallout from pistachios, not yet quantified. Kraft got the burden of this one.

A Kraft spokeswoman reportedly claimed that it did “not know until recently that pistachios were the cause of salmonella contamination in a trail mix and promptly informed their nut supplier, Setton…. [The] spokeswoman said their manufacturer Georgia Nut Co. first found the bacteria in its Kraft Back to Nature Nantucket Blend trail mix in September, but it took more than six months of careful ingredient testing to determine what caused the contamination.”

Six months of tainted trail mix on the market? Unacceptable.

Even the USDA is scratching their heads over what to do on the subject of food safety. It’s a classic case of ‘who’s on first,’ with a power struggle between 15 agencies trying to figure our how to legislate and enforce regulations across growers, producers and manufacturers of our nation’s edible resources. In a Reuters wire article, the USDA chief cites problems in our food safety system. A revelation, indeed, but accountability is the first step in acceptance.

“The U.S. food safety system is divided by competing philosophies and a lack of accountability that make it harder to protect consumers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday as the country.””When you have 15 separate agencies in the federal government responsible for some part (of food safety), you’ve got way too many,” said Vilsack, who supports a single food agency. Who do “you hold accountable when there is a problem?”

President Barack Obama announced a White House panel this month to improve food safety. He assigned Vilsack to head the group along with former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, his nominee for Health and Human Services secretary.

While everyone tries to get things sorted out, and it will not be overnight as you might suspect, it’s important to report incidents of foodborne illness. The FDA and CDC among other agencies track consumer foodborne sickness. But for every reported illness, they estimate 36 others have not been reported. Write your congressperson, log your issue on one of the 15 government agency sites, send a letter to your local newspaper, or twitter to your group of friends – whatever it takes. Just let it be known. With enough critical mass, we may be able to make a difference.

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