In late 2008 and early 2009, more than 700 people were sickened after eating tainted peanut products. My mother, Shirley Almer, was among the nine people who died because of this outbreak.
So many people have suffered because of actions taken by a few. During that period, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) executives allowed peanut products poisoned with a particularly virulent strain of salmonella to leave their facilities, and land on our grocery store shelves. They knew that their product was contaminated — their own testing confirmed it — but they shipped it out anyway. Across the nation, families like mine paid the price.
My mother was a fighter. Over the course of two years, she battled and overcame both lung cancer and a brain tumor — only to succumb to a foodborne illness that could have easily been prevented. She died on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008.
My friends and family mourned her passing, but we resolved to try to fix the system that killed her. In February 2009, I testified before Congress to call attention to the crimes committed by PCA. It is the government’s job to protect us from these deliberate misdeeds. Families and individuals whose lives were forever changed by foodborne illness helped pass the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) groundbreaking food safety law, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
A shift from reaction to prevention
I believe that if FSMA had been in place in 2009, my mother would still be with us. FSMA shifts the FDA’s focus from reaction to prevention and makes growers and food producers fully responsible for the safety of their products.
Before the law, the FDA was unable to recall unsafe products distributed by food producers. Now, companies are required to put in place measures to minimize contamination and risk — and the FDA can levy fines or stop contaminated products from ever reaching a grocery shelf.
Under FSMA, if the FDA uncovers a problem (including rodent and mold infestations) at a food processing facility — as they did at one PCA plant— the agency can shut that facility down. And for the first time, the new law requires that every food facility be subject to more frequent FDA inspections.
Still short of our goal
Food safety advocates like me have worked for years to make FSMA a reality. Today, we have a law, but we are still short of our goal. Without full funding, that law cannot meet its potential. Congress must give FDA the funding it needs to protect our food supply and prevent PCA-like abuses in the future.
On Sept. 21 and 22, I will stand in a courtroom with other families that have been impacted and witness the sentencing of the convicted PCA employees. But our day in court won’t solve everything — and it certainly won’t bring my mother back.
We need fully implemented and funded FSMA to fix that system. I know that my mother would want me to keep fighting.
Jeff Almer lives in Savage, Minnesota.
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