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General Mills, Kraft Seek Safety Rules in ‘Philosophical Shift’

5 March 2009 3,376 views No Comment

March 4 (Bloomberg) — General Mills Inc., Kraft Foods Inc. and Kellogg Co. have reversed past opposition to increased food safety regulation and support U.S. legislation designed to prevent tainted food such as the contaminated peanut butter that killed nine people, the companies’ trade group said.

A bill introduced in the Senate yesterday by Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, would give the Food and Drug Administration new authority to recall products, require food-safety plans from manufacturers and impose regulations on fruits and vegetables most at risk of causing illness.

In a “philosophical shift,” foodmakers support the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, said Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs for the Washington-based Grocery Manufacturers Association. The companies want government to help prevent contamination in addition to detecting it, he said.

“The food industry has been notorious in wanting to self- regulate,” said Sanford Miller, a senior fellow at University of Maryland’s Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “What’s happening now is a question of survival. The more the public becomes concerned about of all things their food supply, particularly for their children, the more there will be demand for regulation of the industry.”

The companies previously focused on devoting more money to inspections rather than mandated preventive measures. Manufacturers may believe tighter government controls are inevitable after contamination scares involving everything from peppers to peanuts in recent years, Miller, a former FDA food- safety official, said in a phone interview today.

Peanut Corp.

Closely held Peanut Corp. of America, which in January recalled peanut products it supplied to hundreds of food manufacturers, faces a lawsuit and a criminal investigation after more than 600 people were sickened by salmonella. The FDA has said Peanut Corp. knew it was shipping tainted ingredients.

Peanut Corp. now intends to liquidate under Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the Lynchburg, Virginia-based company said in a Feb. 13 filing in U.S. Bankruptcy court. The company’s voicemail referred calls to an attorney, who did not immediately respond to a message.

The recall will cost Kellogg $70 million after it pulled crackers with the peanut butter from store shelves, according to the Battle Creek, Michigan-based company, the world’s largest cereal maker.

Unit sales of jarred peanut butter sold directly to consumers, which wasn’t recalled, fell 22 percent in the four weeks ending Jan. 24 from a year earlier, according to Nielsen Company data. To combat the decline, J.M. Smucker Co. took out newspaper ads this month saying its Jif brand was safe.

J.M. Smucker spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher said the Orrville, Ohio-based company supports the trade association’s call for more food-safety regulation.

Safety Plans

The Senate bill would require all food manufacturers to draft safety plans, available to the FDA on request, that spell out contamination risks and methods used to avoid them.

“It is crucial for all food manufacturers to build safeguards into both the product design and the manufacturing process to ensure safe, wholesome food,” Kraft spokeswoman Susan Davison said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Durbin’s bill doesn’t go far enough to ensure that the safety plans are both adequate and enforced, said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Washington-based Food & Water Watch. He said the FDA should be required to verify the safety plans would protect the public.

“There has to be some sort of check to make sure those plans are valid,” he said.

Increased Funding

In addition to increased funding for FDA enforcement, Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft Foods supports mandatory recall power for the FDA, Davison said. Minneapolis-based General Mills also wants the agency to have increased power to get contaminated foods out of stores faster.

“We expect reform will encompass both greater authority and greater capacity to strengthen our overall ability to prevent and respond to food safety issues nationally,” General Mills spokeswoman Kirstie Foster said yesterday in an e-mail.

The FDA currently would have to go through a lengthy legal process to force a company to recall a product if the maker refused, Faber said.

“You can imagine a scenario where a company might drag its feet or simply refuse to conduct a recall and FDA ought to have the tools it needs if that very unlikely scenario were to occur,” he said.

The U.S. companies back a requirement in the Senate measure that food importers document how they are policing suppliers overseas. They also want government to start regulating fruit and vegetable producers as it has food and meat processors for a century, Faber said.

“There’s a gap in the food safety net that the Durbin bill will help fill,” Faber said.

Spinach, Jalapenos

The FDA has faced mounting criticism from lawmakers over its oversight of food safety, as Americans have endured outbreaks traced to tainted spinach, lettuce, jalapenos, beef and peanut butter since 2006.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association favors the Durbin- Gregg proposal over one sponsored by Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who oversees an FDA appropriations subcommittee.

DeLauro’s measure would create a stand-alone agency within the Health and Human Services Department to handle food-safety issues now under the FDA.

Vilsack’s Position

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department inspects slaughterhouses, packing plants and egg farms, has endorsed the idea of a single food agency without saying where it should be located.

Manufacturers also prefer the Senate’s recommendation of a risk-based approach to inspections, as opposed to the government- mandated schedule of inspections laid out on the DeLauro bill, Faber said.

“Taxpayers don’t have unlimited resources and they expect Congress and the administration to focus our food safety funding on those products that pose the greatest risk of food-borne illness,” Faber said.

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