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Is peanut butter the source of Salmonella . . . again?

Salmonella typhimurium

Salmonella typhimurium

Minnesota says yes. FDA and CDC aren’t so sure. The manufacturer has recalled everything.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that 425 people in 43 states have been sickened with Salmonella typhimurium going back to fall 2008. The Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Health sent an initial alert on January 9, based on epidemiological evidence, and then confirmed the same S. typhimurium in an opened pail of the peanutty stuff on Monday, January 12. Still, the feds apparently want more evidence. There are a number of states, like Rhode Island, which assert their S.  typhimurium cases have had no exposure to peanut butter.

Yesterday, January 13, Peanut Corporation of America, which makes the stuff for bulk distribution to institutions, food service industries, and private label food companies, went ahead and recalled everything produced in its Blakely, Georgia processing facility.

So how do these various government agencies and industry decide to go public? At what point is the evidence of harm sufficient to issue a public warning? If consumers knew what was involved, maybe they’d have more confidence in the process.

FDA release
CDC release
MDH release

powell2Doug Powell
Associate Professor, food safety
Dept. diagnostic medicine/pathobiology
Kansas State University
Publisher of Barfblog.com

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5 Responses

  1. Remember the tomato scare last year? It cost the US industry hundreds of millions of dollars, but, if I’m not wrong, in the end wasn’t even connected to Tomatos. Are Gov’t regulators over-zealous? Or do they live in fear of the Media, who are always looking for a good scare, or their bosses, the Politicians ? It appears entire industries, companies and their workers will be thrown under the bus, based on a hunch.

  2. Car drivers have to be insured. Food producers throughout the chain should have to have customer protection insurance or they cannot practice. The insurers know the risks and should set the premiums accordingly. If a company has poor practice and high risk they pay more for insurance (if they can get it). Good practices = low risk = low premium =low cost = low price.

    Food should be quickly traceable both up and down the food chain. Most food products are a complex mix of ingredients. When an ingredient is used or a pack is broken down it should be known where the contents go.

    It sounds expensive but modern barcodes/rdf tags/ when combined with data systems are efficient and quick.

    The cost is ‘peanuts’ when a problem occurs. The finger pointing is targeted at the one source instead of every possible source. The industry as a whole isn’t hit by tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars of losses.

  3. Part of the problem is that consumers don’t have any idea how complex and convoluted it can be to identify a source like this without a smoking gun (which has apparently been found since you wrote the original post). It’s not like a case where 100 people became ill after eating bad potato salad at the school picnic. Whatever the motive (saving lives, money or businesses) the goal is to find the culprit as soon as possible, so it would be reasonable to assume that a warning goes out before there’s 100% assurance to keep the “casualties” as low as possible.
    Then there’s the communication, especially to consumers–who are probably only looking for black and white–which becomes a dilemma (timely warning or unnecessary panic?) And my own pet peeve, “mainstream media,” which not only subscribes to the theory of “if it bleeds, it leads,” but often doesn’t even get it right. (Last night ,on one of the news channels, the teaser showed someone spreading peanut butter on a cracker–which given the potential foodservice connection, I suppose wasn’t toally out of line, but the title was “peanut butter sickens…” and in the news spot they showed jars of peanut butter on the shelf.)

  4. The FDA now says that the sole source of the salmonella outbreak appears to be the Peanut Corp of America’s Blakely, Ga., processing facility. (For the latest details, see http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/salmonellatyph.html.) Would a single federal food agency have identified the source of the salmonella sooner? Probably not since the Minn. Dept. of Ag first uncovered the smoking gun. But what this does say is that we need better communications, programs, and networking among federal, state, and local authorities, as well as industry, academia, and the media. But that’s not likely to happen since most of our legislators in Washington are more concerned about 10 second sound bites that will get them on the 10 o’clock news vs. rolling up their sleeves and actually working to solve a problem.

  5. I’m sick of the public blaming the FDA not having enough resources to stop salmonella outbreaks. That concept doesn’t make any sense. There are standards of conformity which companies comply with to prevent food borne illness. The company responsible tried to do everything in their power to prevent any salmonella contamination, but everything does not always work perfectly to plan. So what does that have to do with the FDA. Should they pass a law requiring testing be done on every food product rendering every food product. Again… Unrealistic thinking.
    Get real. The food industry is safe in the US. You could make your own peanutbutter if you don’t like what’s out there.

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