Kellogg chief calls for overhaul of U.S. food safety

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of Kellogg Co, whose company lost nearly $70 million in products from a recent peanut recall, will tell lawmakers on Thursday the U.S. food safety system must be overhauled with a focus on prevention.

David Mackay, Chief Executive of Kellogg Co., answers questions during the Reuters Food Summit in Chicago, March 14, 2005. REUTERS/Frank Polich

David Mackay, chief executive of Kellogg, said in prepared remarks for a congressional hearing the country needs an authority within the Department of Health and Human Services devoted solely to food safety.

Currently, HHS’s Food and Drug Administration oversees food safety but critics say drug issues get most of its attention.

He also backed annual inspections by FDA of facilities producing high-risk products and the requirement that every food company develop a food safety plan. Some plants can go several years without being inspected.

“The recent outbreak illustrated that the U.S. food safety system must be strengthened,” Mackay will tell a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

“We believe the key is to focus on prevention, so that potential sources of contamination are identified and properly addressed before they become actual food safety problems,” he said.

The peanut outbreak is the latest in a series of incidents involving contaminated food -- including lettuce, peppers and spinach -- that have eroded public confidence in food safety and renewed calls for change at FDA.

Kellogg and hundreds of other companies have recalled 3,491 products from crackers to ice cream that contain peanuts after ingredients supplied by Peanut Corp of America were linked to a salmonella outbreak that began in September. Peanut Corp has since declared bankruptcy.

The government says nearly 700 people have become ill after eating contaminated peanut products.

Kellogg, which first started purchasing peanut paste from Peanut Corp in July 2007, has recalled items such as its Keebler and Austin brands of peanut butter crackers. Overall, the food maker recalled more than 7 million cases of products due to the Peanut Corp contamination, according to Mackay.

Tougher food safety regulations have garnered support from Congress and the White House.

President Barack Obama has organized a panel to improve food safety laws. He blamed the recent outbreak partly on outdated food safety laws and underfunding and understaffing at FDA.

The FDA has pressed Congress for more funding and authority to conduct mandatory recalls, get better access to testing records and force more proactive measures by businesses.

Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Eric Beech