2009-03-20 / Columnists

It's My Turn

By Congressman Anthony Weiner

The Peanut Corporation of America discovered salmonella in its peanuts not once, not twice - but 12 times over two years. The Texas Department of State Health Services even found dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers around the air system at their Texas plant.

Despite these health violations, the executives shipped the tainted peanuts anyway, including 32 truckloads to children's school-lunch programs in three states.

An e-mail released at a recent Congressional hearing showed company owner Stewart Parnell ordered a plant manager to "turn them loose" after learning some peanuts tested positive for salmonella. Company executives refused to answer questions at the hearing per their attorney's advice. One executive even refused to try some of the recalled products.

In all, peanuts tainted with salmonella have sickened more than 600 Americans across 45 states, including 21 New Yorkers. Nine people have died. As we examine this tragedy, we realize it's more than just a bookkeeping problem. This is more than just a matter of bureaucracy. This is, frankly, something approximating criminally negligent homicide.

I believe, based on substantial evidence, these executives did something just short of poisoning people when they knowingly shipped products tainted with salmonella. Authorities in Georgia the place most likely to bring up the criminal investigation - are thinking about whether or not to bring criminal charges. But they have yet to commit and are awaiting federal action.

I am working to introduce legislation to toughen the criminal law on the federal level and allow investigators to use more tools to crackdown on this negligent behavior.

All 43 states impacted, including prosecutors here in New York State, should begin the process of a criminal investigation. New York prosecutors can and should start a criminal probe. These executives, and anyone else involved, should face jail time.

In the meantime, we need a more efficient way to test food products and more food inspectors who are able to review results more easily. The new Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack got it right when he recommended a unified food safety agency. Granting the F.D.A. authority to recall tainted food quickly and creating an advanced system for tracking foods in order to quickly pull tainted food off shelves are needed.

The salmonella outbreak, which led to one of the nation's largest recalls, is more than a simple lapse of regulations and incomplete paperwork. This appears to be a case where someone blatantly ignored basic health practices and willfully sent tainted food across the nation.

The Obama administration and Congress must make food safety a major priority. We have learned firsthand that the safety of our children and families is far too important to trade away for a bag of peanuts.

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