Peanut Company Knew Its Plant Was Contaminated With Salmonella

With outbreak continuing, it's time to take products back to the store.

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More bad news on salmonella tainted peanut butter: The peanut processor knew in 2007 that its plant was contaminated with potentially deadly salmonella but kept shipping out product anyway, according to officials at the Food and Drug Administration. With so much stuff in the pipeline, expect more sick people and more recalls, FDA officials said yesterday.

This outbreak has already killed eight people and sickened at least 501 so far, making it the most deadly food contamination outbreak in at least the past 20 years. Victims include a 72-year-old Minnesota woman who died after eating peanut butter in a nursing home, and Christopher Meunier, a 7-year-old boy from South Burlington, Vt., who fell ill and was hospitalized in November after eating peanut butter crackers. He has since recovered.

Peanut butter has traditionally been considered a low-risk food. It didn't turn up on the food safety worry list until 2007, when a salmonella outbreak was traced to jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter from a ConAgra plant in Georgia. This current outbreak is much, much larger, because the implicated Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Ga., has distributed huge amounts of peanut butter and peanut paste to manufacturers of hundreds of products, from Trader Joe's Nutty Chocolate Chewy Coated & Drizzled Granola Bars to ShopRite Peanut Butter and Cheese Cracker Snacks. Add to that the fact that many of the tainted products are the sorts of things that people stockpile at home and work for snacks and lunchbox treats, and it's easy to see how the outbreak could continue for weeks, if not months.

The best advice to avoid the bad bug: Purge your pantry, desk drawer, and glove compartment of granola bars, crackers, and other products that contain peanuts. Girl Scout cookies are OK, thank goodness. But many other products, including dog biscuits, are not. The FDA has a long list of recalled products and is encouraging people to keep checking it, as it's growing. But the FDA recalls are voluntary, meaning that manufacturers have to make the effort to figure out if they used the bad peanut products, then contact the FDA and stores. Many manufacturers are still in the midst of the process.

"It's critically important that people don't have any of these contaminated products," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. She saw a "voluntary recall sign" two days ago at her local CVS store in Maryland, and asked the store to cross off the word "voluntary". "Just because it's voluntary doesn't mean it's not serious," she says. If you've got some suspicious peanut products, you can take them back to the store and ask them to replace them with something they know is not contaminated, such as a granola bar without peanuts. Jarred peanut butter has not been implicated in this outbreak.

Peanuts have been considered a low-risk food because roasting usually kills bacteria like salmonella. From 1998 to 2006, outbreaks in fresh produce and animal products were far more likely to cause illness, according to information compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. A snapshot of CSPI's data:

  • Seafood: 1,140 outbreaks involving 11,809 cases of illness
  • Produce: 768 outbreaks involving 35,060 cases of illness
  • Poultry: 620 outbreaks involving 18,906 cases of illness
  • Beef: 518 outbreaks involving 14,191 cases of illness
  • Eggs: 351 outbreaks involving 11,143 cases of illness
  • The current salmonella outbreak's death toll of eight exceeds the tolls of the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box that gave fast-food burgers a bad name, or the 2006 outbreak of E. coli in spinach. Expect fast action from Congress on proposals to overhaul the FDA's food safety efforts. Under current law, peanut processors don't have to tell state inspectors or the FDA if they find salmonella in their plant. The FDA says that Peanut Corp. found salmonella repeatedly in 2007 and 2008 but did not report it. The Georgia Department of Agriculture inspected the Blakely, Ga., plant twice last year, and found dirty equipment, but did not test for salmonella, according to the Associated Press.