U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Monday that the owner of a peanut-processing company should be prosecuted for the salmonella poisoning of more than 600 people and federal laws should be changed in the hope of preventing future outbreaks of food-borne disease.
"Based on my review of the evidence, there should be a criminal prosecution here," said Klobuchar, D-Minn., after hosting a two-hour panel discussion on food safety at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.
Peanut Corp. of America, which has filed for liquidation in bankruptcy court, is the subject of a federal criminal investigation over the shipping of adulterated peanut products from its now-closed Blakely, Ga., processing plant. Last week, the company's president, Stewart Parnell, refused to testify in Congress, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Klobuchar, flanked by the sons of two Minnesotans who died after eating tainted peanut butter, pledged to push for major change in the nation's food safety net, including improving the disease-tracking efforts by states and giving government agencies power to order mandatory recalls.
On the panel were Jeff Almer and Lou Tousignant, who each had a parent die after being infected with salmonella from peanut butter served in Brainerd, Minn., nursing homes. Five experts from the university, government agencies and a food company also offered advice on what's wrong with the nation's food safety efforts.
More than 2,200 products have been recalled because they contained peanut butter or other products shipped from Peanut Corp. plants. The list, posted at www.fda.gov, includes snack bars, nut mixes, cookies, candies and other foods. Popular peanut butter products sold in jars, such as Jif and Peter Pan, are not affected by the recall.
Klobuchar, who is a former prosecutor, said she was outraged by disclosures that the company shipped batches of peanut products after they tested positive for salmonella. She said that if the company president is charged and found guilty, "I would hope that he would go to jail."
Criminal charges are rarely brought in food contamination cases, however. Klobuchar said she wants to review what tools are available to prosecutors and possibly improve them.
She said several legislators are working on bills to change how the government regulates food safety -- a job now split mainly between the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She said she intends to play a key role in that effort. She serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has partial oversight of food safety.
Klobuchar said the first step is to pass legislation this year focused on "what went wrong" in this case. Over the next two years, she said, after President Obama has appointed a new head of the Food and Drug Administration, Congress needs to consider revamping federal regulation of food. Panelists suggested creating a single food protection agency or assigning the FDA to regulate processing plants while the USDA monitors food coming off farms.
Klobuchar recognized two epidemiologists from the Minnesota Health Department, Steph Meyer and Carlota Medus, for their work in tracing the outbreak to peanut butter. The senator said Minnesota offers a model to the rest of the nation in how to detect food-borne disease. She said she liked the idea, suggested by panelists, of creating regional outbreak-investigation centers modeled after the Health Department's.
David Shaffer • 612-673-7090