Food Protection Connection: Questions & Answers About the Peanut Product Recall
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(reprinted from Dietary Manager, March 2009)
Dietary managers and, for that matter, many Americans, have had peanuts on their minds with recall news changing almost daily since the beginning of a multi-state Salmonellosis outbreak in September 2008. The first death occurred in December—a nursing home patient in Minnesota. Investigators linked the illness to a five-pound tub of King Nut brand peanut butter.
As of late January 2009, officials had reported more than 500 illnesses and eight deaths due to Salmonella contamination in a peanut processing plant in Blakely, GA. More than 400 products had been recalled. Below are questions and answers about the outbreak.
Q: What was wrong at the plant?
A: Investigators have reported mold, dripping water, inadequate handwashing facilities, grease and rust residue, unsealed gaps large enough for rodent entry, and the potential for cross contamination through the use of a shared area for both cleaning utensils and washing mops. Another possible source of cross contamination was storage of finished peanut butter products close to raw peanuts, according to reports.
Q: In general, how could a peanut plant become contaminated with Salmonella?
A: Michael Doyle, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told Scientific American (1/13/09) that a leaky roof would be one possibility. For example, birds could deliver the Salmonella to a rooftop through their feces, contaminating water that could then leak into a plant. He noted that some peanut processing plants are “quite dated” and “just haven’t been maintained.”
Q: Why don’t they just sanitize a peanut processing plant and be done with the problem?
A: Doyle says that the high fat level of peanut butter makes it easier for Salmonella bacteria to persist, and that there are not current methods available to eliminate bacteria easily in this environment. Doyle commented the best prevention would be prevention of contamination to begin with.
Q: Was this plant inspected?
A: MSNBC reported (1/27/09) that the Georgia Department of Agriculture inspectors had indeed inspected the plant, even in October 2008, and did not test for Salmonella in this routine activity. They did, however, note some violations, such as uncovered equipment.
Q: Are there requirements for routine bacterial testing in peanut processing plants?
A: Not really. Voluntary good manufacturing practices recommended by the American Peanut Council stipulate regular testing, but there is no specific standard. MSNBC reported (1/27/09) that agricultural officials in peanut processing states such as Georgia noted a typical ratio of 60 agricultural inspectors for 15,000 food sites and said inspectors take samples for testing only if they have a specific reason to do so.
Q: Upon investigation of this outbreak, was Salmonella found in the Blakely plant?
A: Yes, four strains (January 2009). Two different strains were found on the floor, and two others in unopened jars of peanut butter. It had also been found previously (about 12 times) in 2007 and 2008 through the company’s internal testing procedures—but subsequently re-tested as negative—according to reports by The Associated Press (1/29/09).
Q: Doesn’t roasting the peanuts at the outset of processing kill off bacteria like Salmonella?
A: Yes, however investigators suggest that after roasting, peanuts can become recontaminated through the plant environment and/or cross contamination.
Q: Which strain caused the outbreak?
A: Salmonella typhimurium.
Q: Is this the same bug that was in the Mexican peppers in another recent outbreak?
A: No, that was Salmonella Saintpaul. In all, there are about 2,000 strains of Salmonella.
Q: Who is this plant supplying?
A: According to MSNBC (1/29/09), the plant is owned by Peanut Corp. of America, which supplies peanut butter to institutions (e.g., schools, nursing homes, and hospitals). Peanut Corp. also supplies peanut paste to food companies for a variety of processed foods.
Q: Why did the recall list keep expanding?
A: The first wave of recalls focused on institutionally packaged peanut butter. Another wave of recalls was precautionary; some manufacturers of products containing peanut butter or peanut paste recalled products just in case. Later, when Salmonella contamination was confirmed at the Blakely plant, any manufacturer using products from the plant could suspect a risk. And finally in late January 2009, based on a history of possible ongoing contamination, the recall expanded to any peanuts (dry and oil-roasted), granulated peanuts, peanut meal, peanut butter, and peanut paste processed in the Blakely plant going back to January 1, 2007.
Q: What is the connection with illness in pets?
A: Peanut products sometimes appear in dog treats, so FDA officials cautioned pet owners that pets may become ill, too, with symptoms such as lethargy, diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Also, symptom-free pets may be carriers. The upshot: FDA advised pet owners to wash hands after handling treats, and consult a veterinarian with any concerns.
Q: What’s the best way to keep up with recalls?
A: For this recall, the FDA set up a searchable website at www.FDA.gov. You can also sign up for e-mail alerts of recalls on the FDA website and stay in dialogue with your own suppliers.
Q: Will peanuts ever be safe again?
A: The bad news is that the plant contamination story highlights serious risks and operational challenges. The good news is that nationwide attention has focused on the farm-to-fork safety of peanuts and other agricultural products. Experts, industry leaders, and legislators are all discussing ways to improve peanut product safety going forward.
Sue Grossbauer, RD, author of several books, and a regular contributor to DIETARY MANAGER magazine.