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James Allen Walker for WORLD

Salmonella cop

Politics | Barton Stupak is a pro-life lawmaker who wants to protect your right to eat a peanut butter sandwich

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Has anyone relished eating a peanut butter sandwich lately?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigators traced a massive salmonella outbreak this past year back to peanut plants in Georgia and eventually Texas, which supplied Kellogg's, makers of products like Cliff Bars, and provided tubs of peanut butter to nursing homes. Investigators hold now-bankrupt Peanut Corp. responsible for nine deaths and hundreds of illnesses across the country, and nearly 3,500 products have been recalled.

For many young and elderly people, salmonella isn't a simple stomach bug, it's a bacteria that can send them to the hospital and sometimes require organ transplants.

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Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan largely blames regulators for the peanut butter debacle and has been one of the loudest critics in Congress of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which he thinks has neglected food safety not just in the peanut case, but for many years. It's part of his concern for "life" issues-protecting the unborn and the born. Stupak, 57, is one of the few Democrats in Congress to consistently vote pro-life.

In February Stupak trotted out the man who has become the villain in the story, Stewart Parnell, the owner of Peanut Corp. Summoning him to a hearing on Capitol Hill, Stupak brought him face to face with families of some who died from his peanut products. Parnell remained visibly calm and refused to respond to questions, citing his constitutional rights. So Stupak, who served as a police officer for 12 years, grilled him.

"The food poisoning of people, is that just a cost of doing business for you?" Stupak demanded, to no answer.

Peanut Corp.'s employees in Georgia described holes in the plant's ceilings where rain would pour in, rampant mold, and standing water where bacteria like salmonella could thrive on the plant's floor.

On a scale of safe to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, I asked Stupak as we sat in his office overlooking the Capitol, where are we?

"We're in The Jungle, no doubt about it," he responded immediately. The Jungle was written when the United States had no food regulation to speak of, so today's system has numerous safety checks that Jungle-era meatpacking never had. But Stupak insists that food manufacturers have more clever ways of covering up unsafe food-like spraying old meat with carbon monoxide to make it look pink and fresh-and parts of the regulatory process haven't been updated since Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906. Sinclair described the use of "downer" livestock who came to meatpacking plants with injuries or sicknesses and were then killed for food. At the beginning of this year, the government finally issued a ban on using downers for meat-after the Agriculture Department issued its largest ever beef recall last year. For Stupak, the number of recalls amounts to a crisis, one that threatens national security because it could expose Americans to a bioterrorist attack.

The president seems to be thinking along similar lines. In the midst of pounding economic concerns, President Obama focused one of his weekly addresses in March on food safety and the new head of the FDA he appointed-an agency outsider named Peggy Hamburg, former public health commissioner in New York City. She has specialized in bioterrorism.

Overall, the United States imports about 15 percent of its food, yet the FDA inspects less than 1 percent of imported food each year, and about 5 percent of food processing plants domestically.

"It is unacceptable," the president said.

Though the president is demanding stricter FDA regulation, Stupak would argue against more regulation from Washington-the city "is not known as a great shipping port for food and drugs," he said. Obama included $1 billion in his budget for next year to expand food safety, which the congressman hopes will fund more field inspections.

Personal tragedy is one spur in Stupak's crusade for a reformed FDA. Nearly a decade ago, on Mother's Day, his teenage son Bart Jr. committed suicide. Stupak and his wife Laurie discovered that their son's acne medicine, Accutane, had the occasional effect of depression and suicide, though nothing along those lines was listed among the medicine's side effects.

"BJ had not shown signs of depression," Stupak said in a press conference after his son's death in 2000. "If we had known that this drug could cause depression, suicide ideation, or suicide, BJ would never have come into contact with Accutane."

The drug sometimes causes spontaneous abortions and birth defects, too; Stupak alleged the FDA was well aware of this for years but refrained from informing the public. Soon after Stupak held hearings on Accutane, the FDA began requiring a "black box warning" on all boxes of the drug, its strongest caution for dangerous side effects. Women have to sign a consent form now to use the drug.

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