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Dole salad scandal spurs calls for stronger FDA

Reactions have been varied to the news that Dole Food Co. knowingly produced and shipped salads from a contaminated facility, ranging from criticism of the FDA to an admission by Dole’s management that the company is being investigated by the Justice Department.

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U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee responsible for funding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She said Dole’s continued operation of the plant was “an outrage.”

“Four people died from these contaminated salads, and dozens more were sickened and hospitalized, because executives at Dole put the company’s profits over public health. These executives must be held accountable for their unconscionable actions,” DeLauro said in a statement issued Friday just hours after she learned of the situation.

“The American people deserve better and we must absolutely ensure that a situation like this one never happens again. The Dole facility in question has said that they have taken corrective actions, but we need specific answers as to what those actions are. If Dole’s actions are not sufficient to ensure food safety, then this facility must be shut down.”

Earlier this week Dole declined to provide details about what had been done to clean the Springfield, OH, salad facility that outbreak investigators in the U.S. and Canada linked to Listeria monocytogenes victims via DNA fingerprinting of the pathogen.

Thirty-three people have been confirmed as having infections from the same strain of Listeria monocytogenes as was found in bagged salads in Ohio and Canada from Dole’s facility in Ohio. FDA inspectors also found the outbreak strain on equipment, non-food contact surfaces, in romaine lettuce being processed at the plant and in finished salad products.

All 33 victims required hospitalization. One outbreak victim in Minnesota and three in Canada died. Illness onsets began in May 2015 and continued through January this year, according to public health records.

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FDA documents obtained by Food Safety News through a Freedom of Information Act request showed Dole officials knew of Listeria in the facility since at least July 2014. The company did not close the Ohio plant until Jan. 21 this year, several days after FDA inspectors showed up.

“Dole’s failure to stop shipping products and clean up its plant before the outbreak showed a total disregard for its customers’ health,” said David Plunkett,  senior food safety attorney for the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“Moreover, its press releases afterwards in recalling the bagged salads showed more concern over the company’s public image than for the people who buy its products. Dole’s customers deserved better than the company’s self-serving announcement.”

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch in Washington, D.C., called for a “robust government inspection system with effective enforcement.”

“This case proves that reliance on the industry to police itself does not work, and schemes that would rely on private third party auditors to enforce food safety standards are no substitutes for an independent government inspection program,” Hauter said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.

Plunkett from the CSPI contends Dole, in effect, violated the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which requires companies to take preventive steps against pathogen contamination of foods.

“It looks like Dole didn’t get the memo,” Plunkett wrote, adding that the FDA could have and should have done more to protect the public.

“The Food and Drug Administration should stop letting companies write their own recall notices and instead implement the recall notification system called for in FSMA. That system would require the FDA — not self-interested companies — to prepare recall notices that grocery stores must display for 14 days. Unfortunately, based on the agency’s actions to date, the FDA hasn’t done much to implement those recall provisions, and doesn’t appear to take informing consumers much more seriously than Dole did.”

Since President Obama signed FSMA into law in January 2011, FDA administrators have been warning that the agency’s budget cannot pay for all of its requirements.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2010 when Congress approved FSMA that the FDA would need an increase of more than $580 million to fund the expanded food safety activities. The agency has received about half of that so far.

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