The peanut butter and spinach are only the tip of the iceberg.

The amount of tainted food on the shelves of the nation’s grocery stores is rising as the agency that issues the recalls slashes the number of food inspections.

The nationwide peanut butter recall last week and the spinach recall a few months earlier were necessary because over the last three years, the Bush administration has cut in half the number of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspections.

“We have a real food safety crisis on the horizon,” said Michael Doyle of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “A review of government records,” he said, “shows that FDA inspections dropped 50 percent between 2003 and 2006.”

Even worse, FDA statistics show safety tests for food processed in the United States have dropped nearly 75 percent, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, has been dealing with the issue of FDA cuts. Caroline Smith DaWaal, director of the center’s food safety division, said, “It’s not just outsiders like us who have been watching it for a while. People who worked in the Bush administration are coming out and saying the agency…just can’t manage the job.”

Among them is Tommy Thompson, former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. He has been pushing for increased funding of the FDA and for stepping up the number of food inspections.

Last year E. coli was found to taint fresh spinach sold coast to coast. The outbreak killed three people and sickened 200.

The latest recall involves both Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter. The peanut butter is tainted with salmonella, bacteria found in feces that can cause severe diarrhea and even death. The outbreak has sickened at least 329 people in 41 states since August, federal health officials say.

Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter are made by ConAgra, a giant agricultural monopoly that was recently swallowed up by Smithfield Packing, another agri-business goliath. All of the poisoned peanut butter was made at the ConAgra plant in Sylvester, Ga. The FDA went to the plant only after the Center for Disease Control pointed to it as the source of the salmonella outbreak. Prior to that, the FDA had not inspected the plant since February 2005.

FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said “companies are supposed to be inspected yearly unless they have a good safety record.”

Herndon was unable to confirm whether any tests for salmonella were conducted when the last inspection took place.

Asked what the inspectors did when they were in the plant, he said they “look for filth, decomposition, adulteration with pesticides and chemicals and the illegal use of color or food additives.”

Like the Bush administration of which it is a part, the FDA seems to be in a state of denial about the food safety crisis triggered by 50 to 75 percent cuts in inspections.

“We’re applying resources to targeted areas. So in a way it’s not a matter of ‘are you inspecting one out of 100 or 10 out of 100,’” said FDA commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eisenbach. “The real issue,” he added, “is if you can define risk. Are you applying the 10 inspectors to the 10 areas of concern? Then it’s essentially you’re covering 100 percent of your problem, which is not covering 100 percent of the universe.”

“This whole thing is a sad joke,” said Loretta Wisher, a shopper in West Milford, N.J.’s Shoprite supermarket last Tuesday. “What good is it,” she asked, “if the FDA just reacts after hundreds are already poisoned – like with the peanut butter? Aren’t they supposed to be preventing these problems?”

The FDA is responsible for regulating about 80 percent of the nation’s food supply. The Department of Agriculture, also now in the hands of the Bush administration, regulates the other 20 percent.

The Agriculture Department said this month that it will follow the FDA’s lead and also switch to a “risk based” inspection plan for plants that process poultry, pork and beef. Plants that make products with a high risk for contamination, like hamburger, and that have had past violations would face greater scrutiny. Others that make less risky products, like cooked, canned ham would be inspected less.

Paula Albanese, another shopper at the West Milford Shoprite, was asked to comment on the Agriculture Department’s planned switch. “The definition of insanity,” she said, “is that you do the same stupid thing over and over again and you think you are going to get different results.”

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