Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, IA 05-04-07

Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, IA
Harkin: Food incidents should be 'wake-up call'
By DAN GEARINO, Courier Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES --- U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin says the recent pet food recall, along
with other incidents such as last year's E. coli outbreak from contaminated
lettuce, should be a "serious wake-up call" about gaps in the nation's food safety
He's asking the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and
Human Services to review current inspection practices and determine how to
prevent a possible crisis in food safety.
"These events are a serious wake-up call. I fear that they indicate broader flaws
and gaps in our nation's food-safety system," Harkin said Thursday in a
conference call with Iowa reporters.
He listed a series of problems, including:
--- The pet food contamination, which hit last month, was traced back to wheat
gluten imported from China that was found to contain a toxic chemical. Many
brands of pet food were part of the recall. Cats and dogs across the country got
sick and many died.
--- E. coli was detected in December in lettuce served in Taco John's restaurants
in Cedar Falls and Minnesota. At least 50 Iowans got sick.
--- Peter Pan and Wal-Mart Great Value peanut butter was recalled in February
after hundreds of people got sick and salmonella was detected.
Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said regulators need
to assess the current food safety system and make changes to reduce the
likelihood of future problems.
Sam Beattie, food safety extension specialist at Iowa State University, said
Harkin's suggestion may be useful, but he thinks the food safety system is
already working effectively.
"Any time you do a non-biased, non-finger-pointing review of a regulatory
authority, I think it's a good idea. Whether or not it's going to show any areas
where we can make improvements is questionable," Beattie said.
He said recent examples of contaminated food are a tiny blip in an otherwise
healthy food system.
"What we have to understand is that food in the United States is probably the
safest in the world at this time. We've seen a decline in the number of illnesses
associated with the major bacterial pathogens in the past 10 years. That's good
news," he said.
Harkin said his concern is that the small problems with contaminated food may
indicate a risk for big problems.
"We need to fix these vulnerabilities to prevent a truly catastrophic outbreak," he
Contact Dan Gearino at (515) 243-0138 and dan.gearino@lee.net