Health Official Admits Faster Action Needed in Salmonella Outbreak

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By Lyndsey Layton

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009; 4:38 PM

A top federal official acknowledged for the first time today that public health officials were slow to recognize salmonella cases caused by contaminated peanut butter as they spread across the country and that faster action might have been able to contain an outbreak that has so far killed eight people and sickened at least 575 in 43 states.

"We need new laboratory tools, new information tools, computer assisted telephones to bring information together in real-time," said Rear Adm. Ali S. Khan, assistant surgeon general, told the Senate agriculture committee this morning. "We need better investment on the state and local level to make diagnoses more quickly. . . . There are a number of opportunities to shorten this timeline and have cases identified quicker."

Khan was responding to questions posed by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who said he did not understand why the first illnesses were reported in early September but it took five months before a recall of the contaminated products was issued.

"You all have got to figure out some way to speed up the process," Chambliss said. "This was a huge breakdown in the system here. A total lack of information sharing between all of our food safety organizations. It's pretty obvious we have to make some major changes."

State health officials in Minnesota and Connecticut were the first who first traced the salmonella illness outbreak to King Nut peanut butter, which was sold to institutions such as nursing homes and schools and was made at a small plant in Blakely, Ga., owned by the Peanut Corporation of America.

In Minnesota, Shirley Mae Almer, 72, died in December after being served peanut butter on toast in a nursing home. "It's shameful a death like this could happen in America," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

In addition to making peanut butter for private labels and institutions, the Blakely plant produced peanut paste and other peanut-containing ingredients that were sold to manufacturers who use them in a wide variety of consumer products, including cakes, crackers, ice cream and even dog biscuits.


Gabrielle Meunier, whose 7-year-old son, Christopher, was hospitalized in Vermont after eating peanut butter crackers contaminated with salmonella, told the committee her agony was magnified by a lack of information from health officials. Christopher ate the crackers Nov. 25, but it wasn't until January, when she stumbled on a news report, that she realized the bacteria came from crackers that were still in her kitchen cabinet.

"I was kept completely in the dark," Meunier said. "I wasn't even aware the FDA was involved. When I tried to call the CDC, they wouldn't even take my call. There were so many time delays. And I had that poison in my house the whole time."

Once Minnesota and Connecticut linked the salmonella to King Nut peanut butter, officials at the Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation of the Blakely plant Jan. 7. They found the company had knowingly shipped peanut products that tested positive for salmonella on at least 12 occasions in 2007 and 2008. The company never reported those test results to either state or federal officials because it is not required to do so.

"It seems to me that is a gaping loophole," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the committee chairman. "A company that does its own testing finds salmonella and doesn't have to report it to the FDA."

The FDA also did not know the company was making peanut butter at the Georgia plant. The last time the FDA inspected the Blakely plant was 2001, when it was blanching and roasting peanuts but not making peanut butter, said Stephen Sundlof of the FDA. In 2006, the FDA contracted with the state of Georgia to perform annual inspections of the facility on its behalf.

The Georgia inspectors never reported any serious problems to the FDA.

When FDA officials went into the plant last month for the first time in five years, however, they found a leaky roof, water stains, poor ventilation, mold, dead roaches, unsanitary equipment as well as four types of salmonella.

That suggests the inspection process was inadequate, Harkin said.

Peanut Corporation of America has another plant in Plainview, Tex., that has been operating unlicensed and uninspected since 2005, according to Texas officials.

The company has recalled all peanut products made at its Georgia plant since Jan. 1, 2007, one of the largest food recalls in history. More than 800 products are on the list. The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation.

Among the company's customers was the U.S. Agriculture Department, which purchased peanuts and peanut butter from the Blakely plant for distribution to schools in California, Idaho and Minnesota. Agriculture officials said today they are suspending the government's contract with the company and intend to prohibit it from doing business with the federal government for three years.

In addition, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack removed the company's president, Stewart Parnell, from a USDA advisory board on peanut product standards. The board advises the agriculture secretary on quality and handling standards for domestic and imported peanuts marketed in the United States.


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