WASHINGTON – Gabrielle Meunier thought her 7-year-old son Christopher's nasty case of the flu was lingering longer than normal when his health suddenly deteriorated in November.
He had a high fever,diarrhea and was vomiting frequently.
“He said,‘Mommy,the pain hurts so much that I want to die,'” Meunier said Wednesday during a press conference at the Capitol.
The South Burlington,Vt.,mom later discovered that Christopher was one of 550 people to suffer from salmonella caused by ingesting infected peanut paste. He is recovering.
Meunier and a Minnesota man who lost his mother to the disease spoke Wednesday in support of new food-safety legislation sponsored by Rep Rosa DeLauro,D-Conn.
The bill would help the federal government better regulate food manufacturers and streamline the process of identifying and eradicating contamination.
According to a report from the Food and Drug Administration,peanut products produced by a Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely,Ga.,are responsible for the recent outbreak of salmonella. The report states that the company knew the peanut paste – used in cookies,crackers,cereal and other products – contained the bacteria.
The FDA has come under fire in recent weeks for failing to ensure that its standards are met. The agency allows state inspectors to inspect food manufacturers,but it can't ensure that the participating 42 states inspect facilities and enforce standards uniformly. Georgia began inspecting the Peanut Corp. plant several years ago.
The federal agency – which is responsible for overseeing food safety in addition to drugs,medical devices and cosmetics – will be the subject of a Senate committee hearing Thursday and one in the House next week.
DeLauro said during Wednesday's press conference that the FDA is hindered because it is responsible for regulating so many different areas. She said that,because no single expert holds final responsibility for food safety,the FDA relies on inadequate partnerships with state regulatory groups and producers to uphold standards.
DeLauro said her bill would remedy this by splitting the FDA into two organizations. A Food Safety Administration would regulate the food industry. The agency would be run by an administrator nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. A separate agency would handle the rest of the FDA's responsibilities.
“There are good people and good science at the FDA. They have never been able to do their jobs and carry out their mission,” DeLauro said.
Her new bill,The Food Safety Modernization Act,resembles legislation she introduced in September following a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,400 people. The outbreak was later linked to jalapeno and serrano peppers.
DeLauro's original bill to divide the FDA never left committee,nor did safety regulation-strengthening legislation produced by five senators in July. Her new legislation encompasses some of both unsuccessful bills.
In addition to splitting the FDA,the bill would create stricter federal standards for food producers and state inspectors,and it would give the agency the authority to recall tainted products rather than relying on industries to do so. Last week's peanut paste recall was voluntary.
Although Congress will face several hot-button issues in this session – including the economic stimulus package and President Obama's health care reform plans – DeLauro said the recent salmonella outbreak requires immediate action.
“The American people deserve better,” she said. “It's not the statistics. It is the reality of the death of a parent or the illness of a child.”