This latest outbreak of salmonella has even the bug experts scared. That's not just because the outbreak has killed seven people and sickened at least 491 in 43 states. It's because the bacteria are in peanut butter and peanut paste that manufacturers bought by the tanker-load and mixed into hundreds of products on supermarket shelves, from Clif bars to ShopRite peanut butter crackers to Trader Joe's Peanut Butter Chewy Coated & Drizzled Granola bars. Even dog biscuits are on the list. These are products that people tend to keep on the shelf for months. If you're like me, you think that throwing a few granola bars into the kid's backpack is a great idea for a just-in-case snack. Not anymore.
It turns out that salmonella and other lethal bacteria thrive in the typical environment of a packaged granola bar: room temperature with lots of protein. Bacteria are killed if they're heated above 140 degrees, but clearly that didn't happen with the peanut butter coming out of the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Ga., which has been identified by the Food and Drug Administration as the source of the outbreak.
"Maybe we should rethink our reliance on packaged food," says Michele Morrone, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Ohio University and author of Poisons on the Plate. "You can't assume that packaged food is safe."
Last year, we learned the hard way that washing vegetables isn't enough to rid them of lethal bugs. The salmonella outbreak first attributed to tomatoes then turned out to be from jalapeño peppers. Bad bugs can lodge deep within vegetables, where no amount of effort will wash them away. Cooking is the only sure bet, food safety experts told me then.
And the food detectives still haven't figured out how salmonella got into peanut butter manufactured in 2007 at a ConAgra plant in Sylvester, Ga. "I doubt we're ever going to know," says Morrone, noting that the salmonella could have come from contamination at the farm, vermin at the plant, or a sick worker there.
With this new outbreak, the best defense is to rid the house of products on the FDA's recall list and any similar products that haven't been cleared. That's the word from the FDA and food safety experts. (The FDA suggests checking with a manufacturer's website or toll-free 800 number, usually listed on the packaging, to see if it's safe. But that information hasn't been verified by the FDA, and with the investigation continuing, very few have been declared safe.) Cooking packaged granola bars to 140 degrees sure doesn't seem practical. And that's really not going to work with the recalled ice cream. When in doubt, the FDA says, throw it out. Once I file this story, I'm going to empty my daughter's backpack of those "just in case" peanut butter granola bars. I'll also purge the cupboards and pantries of any cookies or crackers that list peanuts in the ingredients, just to be safe.
The FDA recall covers products made starting July 1, 2008. That's a lot of peanut product. Jarred peanut butter for home use still appears safe, thank goodness.
Maybe this latest outbreak will be bad enough to force Congress and our new president to overhaul the nation's seriously outmoded food safety system. How many tankers of peanut butter paste do we have to recall before we realize that it's better to prevent illness rather wait until people get sick and die, then announce a recall?
Here's a broader look at the food safety issue, with advice from the experts on how to protect your family, as well as the lowdown on last year's salmonella outbreak in jalapeños. Finish up with 10 things the food industry doesn't want you to know, and you'll end up wondering, as I do sometimes, if a home-cooked bowl of oatmeal (or broccoli from my garden) is the way to go.
Corrected on 1/26/09: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Michele Morrone's university and first-name spelling.