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.
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.
A drug that intentionally causes abortions, FDA-approved RU-486, has Stupak's disapproval also, not only because "it's aborting a child," he said, but also because of the safety concerns for mothers taking the pill. Stupak says his hands are tied-he has tried to hold a congressional hearing on RU-486 but has been shut down because the drug is too controversial.
Joshua Sharfstein, Obama's newly appointed No. 2 at the FDA, also may challenge Stupak's pro-life stands. While working as a staff member to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Sharfstein was a vocal critic of the Bush administration's pro-life policies: "When you have money going to programs with no basis of evidence-basically just an extension of ideology-that's not good for public health."
Stupak has voted with Democrats over 90 percent of the time during this session of Congress, including on the stimulus package. But he voted against his party's recent mortgage restructuring bill. And he is an outright opponent of embryonic stem-cell research and disputes the split between "science" and "dogma" that Obama and many Democrats put forth. "The Democratic party-it missed the boat on this," he said, referring to "life issues."
Along with Republicans and other Democrats, he signed a letter this year pushing the Democratic leadership to keep legislation that prevents federal funding for domestic abortions. And he said if the pro-abortion Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services secretary-to-be, tries to change congressional laws on late-term abortions, "she'll get a battle."
Other legislation sponsored by conservatives to limit research to certain stem-cell lines could hit Congress before Easter. While more Democrats in Congress now consider themselves pro-life, Stupak has few colleagues who oppose embryonic stem-cell research. Many face tough reelections, and stem-cell research, embryonic or not, is supported by most Americans. "You know, they don't want a Michael J. Fox commercial to run in their district," Stupak said. "They still see it as science. 'Just as long as they don't clone people.' Well, where do you draw that line?"
With values and a district that tends conservative, why not be a Republican? Stupak said he's less business-oriented than Republicans are, and he comes from a family of Democrats. His grandmother, though, was a Republican and developed his sense that too much government in people's lives is a bad thing.
He hasn't voted as much of a fiscal conservative-supporting the stimulus and his own earmarks in the vastly increased federal budget-but he has shown that he is willing on certain life issues to buck Democratic leadership. And he's been willing to talk about food and drug safety for years before enough recalls happened to drive his point home. In his office, I read him the headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion: "FDA Approves Salmonella." He didn't laugh, but said, "That's for sure."
76 million Americans suffer from food-borne illnesses each year, and 5,000 of those cases result in death, according to the CDC:
• 2009: Salmonella-laced peanut products sicken at least 700 and result in nine deaths.
• 2008: The FDA recalls Mexican-grown tomatoes and jalapenos tied to a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,200.
• 2008: The FDA recalls more than 143 million pounds of beef from a California slaughterhouse on reports that "downer" cattle entered the food supply. There are no reports of illnesses.
• 2007: Pet food ingredients imported from China cause the deaths of hundreds of cats and dogs, resulting in a massive recall of pet food.
• 2006: Spinach contaminated with E. coli in California sparks a recall that affects more than $86 million in crops. More than 200 illnesses and three deaths are reported.