Salmonella-tainted peanut products spark public fury

Source of Article:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter and peanut products is spreading fear of food poisoning throughout metro Atlanta, while outrage is growing among lawmakers and the public.

The national outbreak has sickened more than 500, including six people in Georgia, and possibly caused the deaths of eight people. It also is changing the eating habits of many.

Robert Humphrey, a 72-year-old retired insurance executive from Lawrenceville, said peanut butter had been a staple of his diet until about two weeks ago when he quit eating all peanut products.

More than 400 products have been recalled by their manufacturers, but peanut butter sold by the jar in grocery stores — such as Jif and Peter Pan — is considered safe. Humphrey knows that, but he’s still not eating peanut butter. Period.

“It’s just not worth taking the chance,” he said.

The salmonella outbreak, traced to Peanut Corp. of America’s plant in Blakely, has ignited public fury, spurred congressional hearings and brought both state and federal criminal investigations.

The company issued a statement late Friday saying, “We at Peanut Corp. of America express our deepest and most sincere empathy for those sickened in the salmonella outbreak and their families. … Our top priority has been — and will continue to be — to ensure the public safety and to work promptly to remove all potentially contaminated products out of the marketplace.”

Last week, federal officials released a report stating that in the last two years, the Blakely plant had found salmonella contamination on 12 occasions, had the products retested in an outside lab that declared them safe, then sold the products.

Public outcry over the report was fast and furious. On Thursday, Gov. Sonny Perdue directed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to review whether the plant in Blakely had broken any state laws.

Also on Thursday, the state’s Agriculture Department, which handled the inspections of the Blakely plant, summoned virtually all inspectors to Atlanta for an emergency meeting and additional training. The department announced it would devote more time to inspections of food-processing plants.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday announced it was joining with the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a criminal investigation into the matter.

Atlanta foodborne illness attorney Alan M. Maxwell confirmed Saturday that Peanut Corp. of America has hired him to defend the company against civil actions.

Maxwell defended Conagra Food Inc. in the 2007 salmonella outbreak linked to Peter Pan peanut butter produced at the company’s plant in Sylvester, Ga., that sickened more than 300 people in 41 states.

Like many consumers, David Canale, 48, of south Cherokee County, and his 9-year-old daughter, Isabella, have given up eating peanut-butter-and-cracker snacks because of the salmonella outbreak.

“We talked about it in class,” Isabella said Saturday. “We looked it up on Google.”

Public awareness of a salmonella outbreak began to grow in early January, but it took about two weeks for the Blakely plant to be identified as the sole source of the bacteria.

More than 100 companies use peanut butter and peanut products made at the plant, and the product recall has expanded almost daily. More than 430 products have been recalled by the companies, making the recall one of the largest in history.

While the rest of the nation and regulators were dealing with the damage from the outbreak, Blakely, a town of about 5,700 in southwest Georgia, was trying to absorb the blow. The plant has been closed, and most of its work force of 50 laid off, a severe setback for the town.

“We’re a resilient people, and we’ll get back,” said Blakely Mayor Ric Hall on Friday. “There’s an old saying that you don’t know what’s in a tea bag until you put it in hot water. Well, we got plenty of hot water.”



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