WASHINGTON (AP) -- A loophole exists in the nation's food-safety system that allows states and companies to keep quiet when they find salmonella or other contaminants, federal health officials said Thursday.
Federal law does not require reporting of contaminants if companies receive private test results showing them or states find them in their inspections, said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, food safety director for the Food and Drug Administration.
"That's one of the very serious loopholes we need to plug," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and ranking minority member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The committee heard testimony Thursday on the salmonella outbreak stemming from a Georgia peanut plant that has resulted in more than 550 illness and at least eight deaths.
Sundlof defended the FDA's handling of the outbreak, but also noted gaps in the country's food safety system that hampers the agency's efforts. The FDA learned only weeks ago that the Peanut Corp. of America had received a series of private tests dating back to 2007 showing salmonella in their products from the Georgia plant, but later shipped the items after obtaining negative test results.
"We would like to have as much information as possible" from food makers, Sundlof said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said food manufacturers should face tough penalties to beef up compliance with federal food safety rules.
"I'd like to see some people go to jail," Leahy said. "Fines won't do it."
Sundlof pointed out that a federal criminal investigation of the outbreak is under way.
He told senators the FDA was hot on the trail of a Georgia processor even before they were certain that peanuts were to blame for hundreds of illnesses.
The first signs of the outbreak were detected in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But disease detectives initially suspected chicken was the culprit in clusters of salmonella infections that states were reporting.
On Jan. 7 and 8, after discussions between federal and Minnesota authorities, peanut butter was added to the short list of suspects when some people who had gotten sick reported eating peanut butter in nursing homes and at an elementary school. On Jan. 8, the FDA visited an Ohio distributor for Peanut Corp. of America.
The next day federal inspectors were at the company's Blakely, Ga. facility, which ultimately was identified as the source of the food poisoning. That same day, Jan. 9, Minnesota health officials found salmonella in an open container of peanut butter made at the plant. On Jan. 10, Minnesota made a positive match to the salmonella strain that caused the outbreak.
Sundlof said the FDA has made many improvements in its food-safety system, and acted quickly in the current outbreak.
"The American food supply continues to be among the safest in the world," Sundlof said.
Lawmakers, however, may not be reassured. They are concerned about the state of the national food safety system, a collaboration between the FDA, CDC and authorities in each state. As the list of recalled items containing peanut products surpasses 1,000, lawmakers are vowing to press for stronger food safety laws and more money for inspections.
"To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit. Food safety in America has become a hit or miss gamble, and that is truly frightening," said Agriculture Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "It's time to find the gaps in the system and remedy them."
Waving a peanut butter sandwich at one point and a jar of peanut butter later, Harkin said he was "nothing short of outraged" at the increasing number of food-poisoning outbreaks. He said consumers should be able to rely on the safety of food staples like peanut butter found in nearly every home.
"If that's not safe, we have to ask what is," Harkin said, adding he would eat his peanut butter sandwich to show major brands found in grocery stores are not affected by the current outbreak or recall.
Harkin asked how a Texas plant owned by Peanut Corp. could have operated unlicensed and uninspected for nearly four years. The Associated Press reported this week that the company did not register with Texas health officials after it opened in March 2005 and state officials inspected it only after discovering it during the current outbreak.
"Should I be alarmed about that?" Harkin asked Sundlof. "I mean, how many plants are operating like this?
Sundlof, who didn't answer Harkin's question directly, said states have different licensing and inspection requirements.
Peanut Corp. has denied any wrongdoing in the outbreak and said Wednesday that its Blakely plant had received regular visits and inspections from state and federal authorities in 2008 and had gotten a "superior" rating from an independent inspection.
More illnesses could be linked to the outbreak over the next two to three weeks, he said.