Special Assignment: FDA responds to News 12 investigation

News 12 at 6 o'clock; May 14, 2009

A News 12 investigation could be getting results all the way in Washington, D.C.

For months, we've been investigating the agency that's supposed to keep your food safe, but after a North Augusta couple says they found a nail in some candy, and a Martinez woman says she found a light bulb in her ice cream, we went to work. We could never get anyone from the Food and Drug Administration to really talk to us until something that aired right here on News 12 finally got their attention.

Dr. David Acheson is the Associate Commissioner for Foods. He's very high on the FDA food chain, and after our News 12 investigation, he wanted to talk to us via satellite from the FDA headquarters in Maryland because the "story that you ran came to our attention, we looked into what the situation was, and felt that we wanted to work with you and with them directly to try to address some misconceptions about whether or not the FDA takes these things very seriously, which we do."

All Pamela Saunders wanted was for someone to find out how a nail got in a piece of candy. Angela Maddox wanted to know how a light bulb got in her ice cream. When both women came to News 12, we put them in touch with the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA started investigating them, so we started investigating the FDA.

What we learned worried us, but it also worried someone pretty high up in the FDA.
It worried him so much he wanted to sit down with us for a one on one. He told us, "the head of our press office and I had a conversation about this on Friday. We both recognize that there's lessons to be learned internally in the way that we handle these types of requests."

Let's start with the Saunderses and the nail in that Peppermint Pattie

Meredith Anderson: I have two documents that we got from Freedom of Information Act requests. Both say case closed. One says it's not the consumer's fault, and the other says no further investigative activity will be taken. I have to assume the case is closed when I have two documents that say it's closed.
Dr. David Acheson: "Right. Well, there's various ways at looking at case closed."

Dr. Acheson says the Office of Criminal Investigations is still looking into it. His team believes someone at the store where the Saunderses bought it put it there on purpose.
That was in none of the documents or reports the FDA gave us. Something else that was missing was proof the FDA did anything to investigate the company, Hershey's.

Meredith Anderson: "I just want to be completely clear. No phone calls to Hershey's. No visits to Hershey's. Just the store. Just the Saunderses."
Dr. David Acheson: "At this stage, I am not aware that an investigator has been into Hershey's to specifically follow up on this."

That bothers the Saunderses. Why would the FDA spend all that time investigating them and not spend even a minute investigating the company? "Could it have happened at the manufacturing facility? Sure," says Dr. Acheson. "But, it is low on the possibility list."

Angela Maddox says she felt like she was on trial when she called the FDA after finding a light bulb in her ice cream.
Unlike the Saunderses, a criminal team showed up at her door.

Meredith Anderson: It seemed like a very different situation for almost the same thing. I mean, both claim to have found a foreign object in their food, and it looks like the response was completely different."
Dr. David Acheson: "Well, it wasn't that different. They were both followed up on. Both families were talked to by FDA investigators and, where necessary. the criminal part of the agency."

Still, Angela says she was intimidated and is left wondering if the government considered her a criminal. Dr. Acheson hopes this doesn't keep people like Angela from calling the FDA if they ever find anything in their food. He says, "I'll grant you that we need to follow up more swiftly. I think that's a lesson learned from this situation which the agency is always open to. And that's why I think these sorts of reports are helpful to us and helpful to the public because what they do is identify a system that is not working as smoothly as we would like."

That system may never solve the mystery of the nail in the Peppermint Pattie -or the light bulb in the ice cream, but those two cases might solve something else: problems within the FDA.

Dr. Acheson would like to stress, again, please call the FDA if you find something in your food that doesn't belong there. He made a promise to me that the FDA will do a better job getting you answers and information, and I am going to hold him to that.


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