Food companies work to ensure safety from salmonella

Source of Article:,0,5137934.story

January 26, 2009

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 current outbreak.

"They 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 last year.

The redesigned facility is seen as state of the art, a model for others in the industry to follow, though not everyone has, Marler said.

'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 from PCA.

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 manufacturing practices.

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 safety practices."

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 scares.

"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 single company.

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 domestic concerns.

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 say.

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," Halloran said.


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 outbreak.

Recalls have been issued for hundreds of products containing PCA-supplied peanut butter and paste.


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 cookies."

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.


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 contamination.

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; 325,000

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 food outlets.


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 Great Value.


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.

JUNE 2008

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 as tomatoes.

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 University. That's because agricultural products are grown in open fields with little security.




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