Foodborne-illness mystery? Call in the Minnesotans
Source of Article: http://www.twincities.com/allheadlines/ci_11734975
After solving salmonella outbreak, state held up as a model to follow
Posted: 02/19/2009 12:01:00 AM CST
While others celebrated the holidays,
A nationwide salmonella outbreak had sickened hundreds of consumers,
leaving a growing death toll, and nobody was sure why. Within days, state
How did they do it? That's what Congress wants to know as it seeks to
improve the nation's uneven food-safety patchwork. If the salmonella outbreak
revealed how the food-safety system faltered, it also showed how
"Time and time again, it's the foodborne disease unit at the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture that has come up with the answers," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
More than 40 states were involved in the peanut case, but Minnesotans were
the first to zero in on the type of tainted peanut butter. The first to trace
it back to a
"Because institutionally-served peanut butter, in five-pound containers, was identified by the state of Minnesota as a potential vehicle, our investigation began with a strong lead: the brand name of a company and the address to begin our trace," the FDA's director of food safety, Stephen Sundlof, told Congress last week.
"It's almost thinking like a criminal investigation, like you're trying to solve a murder," said Mike Schommer, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Here's how Minnesotans cracked the peanut case, as told by some who helped do it.
1: Outbreak begins. On Nov. 10, federal investigators noted a bump in the number of salmonella cases. Within weeks, it was clear a major outbreak was under way. But from where? Deadly salmonella bacteria can hide in many foods, but most commonly it's in poultry, so chicken and eggs were suspected early.
3: Interview victims. Health officials in
4: The wave hits. Three days before Christmas, a long-term care facility in Brainerd reported several salmonella infections. A separate Brainerd facility had another case. Yet another case in town surfaced. A cluster had emerged, and investigators bore in.
5: Search for clues. "We worked with that long-term care facility, looking at things like menus and invoices," Medus said. The menus didn't even list peanut butter. But Medus persisted. She thought, "Hmmm, they had no snacks? I don't think so." Turned out, peanut butter was a common snack at the facility.
6: Connecting dots. When two schoolchildren in northern
7: Round up suspects. Food inspectors working with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture fanned out to seize samples of King Nut peanut butter. "Ideally, you want the product that the person ate," Schommer said. "But once it's opened, there is a risk of cross-contamination. So you (also) go and look at that production lot, and look for unopened products in that lot."
8: Probing a source. Minnesota investigators traced the King Nut
peanut butter back to a processing plant in Blakely, Ga. Said Ben Miller, who
supervises the response unit at the state Agriculture Department, "We
spoke with the QA (quality assurance) manager in Blakely, and told him we
were looking at King Nut as a possible source of salmonella
9: To the lab. On Jan. 9, lab tests in
10: Retracing a killer. Even before test results were in,
investigators had started retracing the peanut butter's distribution path. So
when the result was found Friday, Jan. 9,
11: A public warning. The positive test and distribution pattern
while not definitive impelled
12: A genetic match. On Monday, Jan. 12, genetic testing in
13: Cop on the beat. Agriculture officials fanned out across the state, checking that questionable products were being removed from store shelves, warehouses and storerooms. If need be, Schommer said, "We do have the power to embargo product."
14: Final proof. Because outside contamination is possible in
opened jars, officials seek confirmation from sealed jars, too.
Nine consumers, including three in
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