(Feb. 13, 2:00 p.m.) Two high-profile congressional hearings less than a week apart brought new scrutiny and stronger calls for congressional reform of federal oversight for food safety.

A Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Feb. 5 and a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Feb. 11 reviewed issues surrounding the salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter. The hearings included testimony from victims of the outbreak, as well as examination of the manufacturer’s culpability and the inadequacy of the government’s general oversight of food safety.

Lobbyists for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association and the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association said they anticipate increased scrutiny of food safety, with legislation likely by late 2009.

In late January, United Fresh issued a white paper on the group’s food safety policy positions.

“It is imperative that it is understood that most fresh produce is not sold as ready-to-eat commodities and should not be held to RTE standards,” according to a summary of the document. “Any food safety effort should, however, encompass the entire supply chain regardless of size, location or operation type.”

Says every food plant should be regulated

At the Feb. 5 hearing, Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said Congress should require every food plant regulated by FDA to have safety plans detailing analysis of potential hazards and steps they’re taking to minimize or prevent contamination.

“This establishes the industry’s fundamental responsibility for ensuring food safety and provides a foundation for the government audit inspections,” she said.

Congress must also give FDA the authority and funding to enforce compliance through regular inspections and access to company records and the ability to mandate recalls, DeWaal said.

She said the FDA’s failure to detect and correct unsafe practices at the Blakely, Ga., plant of the Peanut Corporation of America highlights how FDA’s inspections and the agency’s oversight of state-contracted inspections contribute to illness outbreaks. DeWaal’s group supports legislation that specifies frequency for inspections.

“Higher-risk foods should be inspected at a greater frequency, preferably no less than annually, with lower-risk food facilities being inspected at least once in any two-year period,” she said.

Suggests registration fee

DeWaal said setting inspection frequencies would require establishing a modest registration fee to offset the costs associated with increased oversight.

DeWaal said the troubles with state inspection of the Peanut Corporation of America’s processing plant point to the need for improved federal oversight and assistance to state inspectors.

She also called for stiffer penalties for companies violating laws.

“It is time to bring FDA’s penalties for food violations in line with what is used for drugs and medical devices,” she said.

At the Feb. 11 hearing, Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the FDA is seeking preventive controls for high-risk foods, authority for more access to food records during routine inspections, and authority to require food facilities to renew registrations every two years.