On Thursday, May 8, a House Committee issued a “letter of inquiry,” described by many news outlets as a subpoena, on forty-nine food processing and manufacturing companies. Reps. John D. Dingell (D-MI), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce and Bart Stupak, Chairman of its Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, inquired about recalls since the year 2000. The Committee reportedly also asked the recipients to detail their history of providing information regarding product failing to meet internal quality control measures to regulators, and to list those occasions on which regulators were denied, for any reason, access to facilities or documents. A list of the recipients of the letter of inquiry is available online. Responses for most recipients are due within two weeks.
In a press release, Rep. Dingell said: “We are asking the largest food providers how often they have identified contamination by chemicals such as mercury and microorganisms such as E. coli and salmonella during their quality control testing procedures. We know from the Peter Pan peanut butter case and others that internal testing by food processors often fails to detect contaminants. Now we want to know what exactly is reported to the FDA or state public health authorities when companies actually find dangerous chemicals and bacteria in our food.”
This Committee has been active over the last year, holding several high-profile hearings concerning food safety, recalls, and the adequacy of the current regulatory oversight. Clearly, the Committee intends to continue its focus on the issue: “Food processors have, for the most part, avoided the kind of regulation and inspections that are imposed on drug and medical device manufacturers,” said Stupak. “We intend to determine exactly how rigorous these large multinational corporations have been in protecting the health of the American consumers.” Its criticism of the regulators has been equally sharp. “The FDA has failed to protect Americans from food poisoning and we have all witnessed the cascade of recalls and outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that resulted. Our investigation has examined many of these breakdowns in the food safety net. Now it is time to determine if the owners of the largest brand names on supermarket shelves have been forthcoming with the American people about the safety of their products . . . Our investigation has clearly established that the FDA lacks the leadership and the resources to keep bad food off our grocery shelves and dinning room tables.”
Food manufacturers should expect increased regulatory and political interest in the issue as the 2008 elections approach.