companies work to ensure safety from salmonella
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As the list of
food suspected of salmonella contamination continues to grow, food safety
experts recounting a similar outbreak two years ago are asking why some
lessons from the past have not been universally learned.
In February 2007, the industry giant ConAgra
Foods of Omaha, Neb., recalled thousands of jars of Peter Pan and Great
Value peanut butter because tests revealed salmonella contamination. The
product had been shipped to all 50 states and 60 foreign countries. The
bacterial problem was traced to a ConAgra peanut-processing plant in Sylvester, Ga.
In response, ConAgra remodeled the entire plant, separating the areas for raw
peanuts from finished peanut butter and paste, which must remain sterile.
With the source so difficult to trace, that was the safest way to assure it
didn't happen again, experts said. No ConAgra products are named in the
put about $50 million into completely reconstructing the place - new roof,
new separation area between the roaster and production lines," said Bill
Marler, a Seattle
attorney who specializes in litigating food poisonings and was invited to
ConAgra's headquarters to discuss the outbreak last summer. He settled more
than 1,200 salmonella poisoning cases with ConAgra for an undisclosed sum
The redesigned facility is seen as state of the art, a model for others in
the industry to follow, though not everyone has, Marler
'Guidelines don't work'
The company's actions went far beyond Food and Drug Administration guidelines
established after the 2007 outbreak, guidelines critics say do little to
assure protection of the food supply or ease the ability to trace the source
of contamination. What's more, the FDA has too few inspectors to visit the
nation's 65,520 domestic food production facilities more than once a decade
on average, critics say.
"Guidelines don't work," said Caroline Smith DeWaal,
director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a
consumer advocacy organization in Washington,
D.C. "Many companies may
choose not to implement them."
With the last outbreak only 23 months ago, "You would think the industry
would have learned a lesson," said Jean Halloran, director of food
safety for Consumer's Union in Yonkers.
The current scare involves another Georgia
site, the Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Blakely. Its
peanut butter and paste are purchased in bulk containers ranging from 5 to
1,700 pounds, by at least 70 companies nationwide that manufacture hundreds
of different products.
Almost 200 products, running a wide gamut from cookies, crackers, ice cream
and pet food, have been voluntarily recalled because of possible salmonella
contamination. PCA also sells bulk peanut butter to institutions, such as
schools, nursing homes and prisons.
Next week, Marler said he will travel to Georgia to
photograph PCA's facility, a trip that could
clarify whether conditions were like those that led to salmonella
contamination at ConAgra two years ago.
On Friday, George Clarke, spokesman for PCA, said the company would not
comment on the current outbreak.
"PCA is focusing on the ongoing investigation with the FDA and working
with its customers," he said of companies that purchased its peanut
butter. "That's the top priority right now."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
estimated 25 people in 47 states were sickened two years ago in the
salmonella outbreak. No deaths were attributed to the illness. In the current
scare, more than 490 people in 43 states have gotten sick and at least seven
deaths have been linked to peanut products tainted with Salmonella typhimurium.
ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs emphasized none of its products is
involved in the current scare. The company's peanut butter products, she
said, are safe.
"We reached out to our suppliers and through that work we were able to
quickly determine that PCA is not a supplier to ConAgra nor is it a supplier
to any of our suppliers," she said.
Reacting to outbreaks
As with the makers of other major grocery brands - Jif and Skippy - several manufacturers
have posted prominent notices on their Web sites stating they do not purchase
Yet consumers are vulnerable, Halloran said, because
the FDA - and state health departments - tend to
react to outbreaks rather than being proactive through tough enforceable
rules. Companies mostly are on their own, expected to follow good
The American Peanut Council in Virginia, which
represents peanut processors, said in a statement Friday that since the 2007
outbreak, the industry has "redoubled its efforts in reviewing food
Those efforts include establishing an expert committee on microbiological
contamination to review optimal temperatures for killing bacteria; and a safe
food practices course for peanut processors.
Stephen Sunlof, director of the FDA's Center for
Food Safety and Nutrition, said government inspectors are vigorously
investigating the current outbreak - just as they have probed previous
"We've asked for the company records," he
said. "Companies are required to keep records on source ingredients and
who they've shipped them to. We've been to the primary purchasers, but it
gets to be a fairly complex web," because, in addition to primary
purchasers there are secondary and tertiary buyers of food products from a
No one knows yet how salmonella entered PCA's
plant. Marler noted the germ can be carried by
birds and rodents.
FDA cites progress
The FDA, which oversees the safety of produce and other foods ( the U.S.
Department of Agriculture inspects meats), cites progress in guarding the
nation's food supply, instituting more inspections and issuing a
comprehensive food protection plan.
Many food safety advocates say more needs to be done, and some are calling
for an overhaul of the federal agency. Some say the FDA commissioner should
be a cabinet-level position to ensure food safety is front-and-center among
A spate of food scares since 2006 have collectively sickened thousands - many
of people have died - making the need for change all the more urgent, experts
In less than three years, the country has been hit with major E. coli
contamination of spinach, lettuce and beef; salmonella has tainted jalapeņos
and twice tainted peanut butter.
Last month, the FDA issued a progress report indicating it inspected 5,930
domestic food-production establishments during fiscal year 2008.
But an earlier report from the Government Accountability Office, which
analyzed the FDA's Food Protection Plan - a manifesto to guard the food supply
- noted there are 65,520 domestic food production
facilities in the country.
"We would not be surprised to see more salmonella outbreaks,"
Salmonella typhimurium has been blamed on the
contamination of peanut butter and peanut paste manufactured by Peanut
Corporation of America.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 490
illnesses to date in 43 states. So far, seven deaths have been linked to the
Recalls have been issued for hundreds of products containing PCA-supplied
peanut butter and paste.
GIRL SCOUT COOKIES SAFE
The outbreak comes at a sensitive time for the Girl Scouts: during the annual
cookie sale. On Monday, the organization issued a press release saying that
PCA "does not supply peanut butter used in any variety of Girl Scout
Bonnie Parente, 39, a Girl
Scout leader from East Williston, said one
regular buyer who ordered cookies from her 9-year-old daughter, Emma, called
her with concerns. Parente and other leaders have
exchanged e-mails in recent days about getting the word out that Girl Scout
cookies are safe.
So far, Emma's door-to-door sales - about 150 boxes since Jan. 10 - are
average, Parente said. "We really don't want
sales to go down because Girl Scouts rely on cookie sales for trips and
events throughout the year," she said.
'07 PEANUT BUTTER CRISIS
In the aftermath of a salmonella outbreak two years ago that caused ConAgra
Foods to voluntarily recall thousands of jars of Peter Pan and Great Value
peanut butter, the company took steps to prevent further salmonella
Invested $50 million to remodel its peanut processing
plant in Sylvester, Ga.
Paid close attention to keeping raw peanuts in an area that is separate and
distant from finished peanut butter, never allowing the two in proximity.
Adhered to manufacturing practices that go beyond those recommended by the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Outbreaks unusual, but they do happen
Annually there are about 76 million food illnesses in the United States;
hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Nationwide outbreaks occur intermittently,
but in recent years there have been several notable outbreaks.
E. coli contaminates spinach grown in California. The
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 205 illnesses nationwide
and three deaths. Nationwide recall issued by the Food and Drug
Administration of bagged spinach.
E. coli contaminates iceberg lettuce grown in California. CDC estimates 71 illnesses, no
deaths. Contamination affected lettuce served at Taco Bell and Taco John fast
Salmonella Tennessee contaminates
Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter. CDC estimates 625 illnesses, no
deaths in 47 states. Nationwide recall of thousands of jars of Peter Pan and
E. coli contaminates beef at Topps Meat Co. in Elizabeth, N.J.
The Department of Agriculture issues second-largest recall in U.S. history:
21 million pounds recalled. Forty people sickened. The recall forced the
67-year-old company out of business.
Salmonella Saintpaul contaminates jalapeņo and serrano peppers grown in Mexico. CDC estimates 1,442
people across the country were sickened; 286 were hospitalized. The infection
may have contributed to two deaths. Consumers told to avoid peppers as well
Then there's the terror threat
Federal health officials say there is no evidence that the salmonella-tainted
peanut butter was an act of bioterror. In fact,
there has never been a known case of terrorism involving farms or dairies.
Still, the question of food-supply safety is on the minds of many Americans
frustrated with frequent bacterial outbreaks.
The National Academy of Sciences studied the issue several years ago and
concluded that farms and the U.S.
food supply are not protected from biological attack.
"Agriculture is considered by many to be the perfect target for
bioterrorism, also called agroterrorism," said
Radford Davis of the Institute of Biological Sciences at Iowa State
because agricultural products are grown in open fields with little security.