Peanut butter, spinach, tomato and Chinese toy sandwich

Jon Stewart was poking fun at critics of President Obama’s stimulus package on The Daily Show last night, and came up with this quip:

Funding for regulatory agencies? Please. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a peanut butter, spinach, tomato and Chinese toy sandwich to finish.

The line comes about 3:23 into this video.

Being prudent about peanut butter thingies

“With eight dead and almost 600 sick, it’s a time to be prudent.”

That’s what I told CNN Radio late last night in response to a question about the adverts placed by Conagra Foods Incorporated and J.M. Smucker Company in an attempt to bolster peanut butter sales, which have plunged at least 25 percent since the salmonella outbreak. Oh, and with baby Sorenne around (right, exactly as shown), anything after 9:30 p.m. is late.

“None of these companies are really coming out and saying this is what we do to ensure safety. They say, yeah, we test for salmonella. But are those tests public? They’re not. …

“If you’re a parent packing a lunch and you have all the hectic things going on in the morning, is it really realistic to say, hey, before you put that peanut snack cracker individually wrapped item into your kid’s lunch you’re going to go onto the Internet and check a Web site? I think that’s a bit much. I think it’s prudent to avoid this stuff until we see where this is going.”

Some retailers slow to pull peanut products; test results need to be public

Shelly Awl, a clerk at a gas station on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday,

“It’s so confusing. I wish they would communicate better what is safe and what is not.”

At a gas station in North Fulton, Karan Singh eyed with suspicion a pile of energy bars, cookies and snacks that had been laid at the check-out counter for purchase, telling a customer,

“I don’t think I should sell these to you. These might not be good.”

While many stores — particularly major supermarkets — appear to be keeping up with the recalls, smaller stores seem to be less consistent, according to some spot checks by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The salmonella outbreak linked to a South Georgia peanut-processing plant has spawned one of the largest product recalls in American history. The list of products that are off-limits has risen to 1,550, with new names coming out daily.

However, at Publix stores, spokeswoman Brenda Reid said recall alerts from suppliers and the FDA are immediately e-mailed to stores, which then have three hours to respond that they have removed the recalled item from the shelf. If it’s not accomplished, company managers continue to contact the store and will even send a representative there. District managers also check during their visits, she said.

The recalled item is also logged into the store’s computer, so if a customer finds one, the cashier will be alerted and will not be able to ring it up, Reid said.

Kroger stores are alerting customers who have a Kroger Plus Card of any recalled purchases through automated phone calls.

And in a feature tomorrow, the Journal-Constitution reports federal food regulators describe the 2007 Peter Pan peanut butter salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia plant in 2007 as “a wake-up call.” But that realization did not lead officials to scrutinize at least one other peanut processor: the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely.

They didn’t even know the plant made peanut butter.

The FDA first learned of possible salmonella contamination at ConAgra four years ago — two years before officials traced hundreds of illnesses to Peter Pan.

In early 2005, an anonymous tipster told the FDA that ConAgra’s internal testing had detected salmonella in a batch of peanut butter the previous October, agency records show. Company executives confirmed the test results to an FDA inspector but refused to turn over lab reports unless the agency requested them in writing. The inspector left the plant, records show, and never again requested the reports.

Congressional investigators later learned that FDA policy discouraged written document requests. Federal courts, the FDA said, had ruled that if manufacturers turned over material in response to a formal request from the government, those documents could not be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution against them.

But in the vast majority of cases, investigator David Nelson told a House subcommittee in 2007, the FDA pursues neither documents nor criminal charges. Nelson termed the agency’s actions “nonsensical.”

The FDA cited no violations following the 2005 inspection in Sylvester, said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, which is based in Omaha, Neb. Long before the inspector arrived, Childs said, the plant had destroyed the contaminated peanut butter.

This is why when companies claim they test for Salmonella, like in this ad for Jif (upper left, thanks Barb) that ran today, it’s sorta meaningless without some sort of public disclosure or oversight.

Sales drop 25% as parents shun peanut butter

A story in Saturday’s  N.Y. Times will report that sales of all brands of peanut butter are down by nearly 25 percent – and those numbers will get worse.

The contaminated peanut butter traced to the Georgia plant represents a small percentage of the total $800 million in annual sales by the peanut butter companies in the United States. But the public relations problem for the rest of the industry is unlikely to ease anytime soon. …

So far, the salmonella outbreak has been linked to 575 illnesses and eight deaths, and more than 1,500 products have been recalled, including cookies, ice cream and pet food.

In response, brands like Jif and Peter Pan are taking out ads to tell shoppers that their products are not affected, and giving them a coupon.


Oh, I’m sorry, I fell asleep.

Instead of telling consumers what they aren’t, maybe the big peanut butter types could tell people what they are – the food safety steps they take to produce a product that won’t make people barf.

The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

The makers of Jif and Peter Pan have already gone on record saying they will not disclose their own food safety test results.

Recalls wreak havoc, but safety sells

At the grocery store yesterday I found jars of Kroger peanut butter stacked nearly waist-high on display at the end of an aisle. Curious, I circled the display, thinking I might find a sign saying “Does not contain Salmonella” or something to that effect. There was no such ad.

Why aren’t the makers of safe peanut butter bragging about it?

K-LOVE is always in the background when I do my writing.

While one of the K-LOVE news anchors was updating listeners on the Peanut Corp. salmonella outbreak, the DJ mentioned he put off buying a jar of peanut butter at the grocery store the night before. He felt it wiser to wait.

Peanut Corp., the FDA, and several snack manufacturers—including General Mills and Kroger—have warned against eating products made with peanut butter and/or peanut paste produced by Peanut Corp.

FDA may not be entirely sure what products those are, but has said many times,

"We don’t have concern about the national, name-brand peanut butter that’s sold in jars at supermarkets and retail outlets."

Consumers are wary anyway.

Part of the problem could be the misleading images (such as the graphic above by ABC News) put forth by the media.

It could just be that recalls are scary.

After the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak, Canadians cut back on deli meats of all brands and even stopped buying hot dogs. People defensively avoided anything recognized to support the growth of listeria.

People value safe food.

If given a compelling story of how companies and industries identify and control risks, they might make different buying decisions.

Know where food comes from

Traceability was a popular topic when I started working for Doug last summer, with the Salmonella-linked-to-tomatoes-or-was-it-peppers outbreak. The current peanut butter-linked outbreak follows the same trends as the list of recalled products is on the rise. As a consumer, I wonder: do producers know their suppliers and where their food is coming from?

The FDA warned consumers to postpone consumption of anything containing peanut butter or peanut butter paste. This is where labeling becomes important. Not only should consumers read labels, they also need some assurance that labels are accurate.

A woman suffered a severe allergic reaction after eating a parfait in a Canadian Starbucks last week. She purchased the parfait after an employee assured the dessert was nut-free. The ingredients list also failed to mention nuts. I am pretty sure this woman will have a hard time trusting labels after this.

I was diagnosed with celiac disease a few weeks ago and I know how this feels. I have to avoid products containing gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and triticale.

Gluten can also be found as a food additive in the form of flavoring, or as stabilizing or thickening agent. In such cases, producers are not required to include the protein on the label because it is classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the FDA. There is also no official definition as to what constitutes a gluten-free product, so celiacs like me are recommended to buy products from trusted sources.

That Canadian Starbucks is not a trusted source.

Whether it’s because of food allergies, intolerance to gluten, or salmonella, food processors need to be aware of where their products come from and what they contain.

Facing a recall without superhero senses leaves some vulnerable to confusion

I don’t like fresh tomatoes. Generally, my careful avoidance of them is a fairly unique practice. At least, I thought so until I met Bret. We stand together in our quest for vegetables that don’t leak acid on the rest of the salad.

We were on our honeymoon when the outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul in tomatoes and/or hot peppers hit the news. Many people joined our stance on tomatoes then… but it took me a while to realize it.

Since I wasn’t reading FSnet while we were gone, I had to hear the warnings put out on eating tomatoes like a regular consumer would. It was like my superhero senses were turned off.

At the time, I wasn’t in the habit of watching the news. And according to the results of a Rutgers Food Policy Institute (FPI) survey,

“The majority of respondents (66 percent) first heard about the advisory on television.”

Throughout our trip, we ate at cafes, buffets, and casual dining establishments. When we didn’t eat out, we stopped at Wal-Mart for cereal and sandwich supplies. None of those places showed signs of produce being recalled.

The survey found,

“A small minority (8 percent) first heard about it from restaurants and retailers.”

As it happened, some of the first news I received came from my step-dad’s mom, who understood the problem to be in tomatoes sold with the vine still attached.

Hearing through the tomato-vine was problematic, though. I later learned the CDC advised,

“…persons with increased risk of severe infections…should not eat raw Roma or red round tomatoes other than those sold attached to the vine or grown at home…”

Those two words, “other than”, were missed (or misunderstood) at some point in the chain of communication that ended with me.

Lead author of the Rutgers FPI report, Dr. Cara Cuite said in a press release,

“Our results suggest that consumers may have a hard time taking in many details about these types of food-borne problems.”

Almost half (48 percent) of people surveyed indicated they were not sure which types of tomatoes were under suspicion.

I was back at superhero headquarters (i.e. in front of my Mac) when Salmonella Saintpaul was found in a sample of jalapenos from Mexico, and again when the outbreak strain was isolated from a Mexican serrano pepper and the water used to irrigate it.

Most consumers weren’t so lucky. From the survey,

“The researchers found that while almost all respondents (93 percent) were aware that tomatoes were believed to [be] the source of the illness, only 68 percent were aware…that peppers were also associated with the outbreak.”

Dr. Cara Cuite commented in the press release,

“This research is especially timely in light of the growing number of recalls as a result of the Salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter and peanut paste.”

How can consumers be better informed? One practice seen in both outbreaks that helped alleviate some confusion was the use of club membership or “loyalty card” information to contact customers who had recently bought recalled products.

What else can be done to clear things up? After all, regular consumers don’t have superhero senses.

FDA announces massive Peanut Corp of America recall

Multiple outlets are reporting tonight that every peanut, every ounce of peanut oil and all peanut butter and paste products produced by Peanut Corporation of America in its Blakely, Georgia plant since January 2007 has been recalled.

From the FDA website:

PCA sells its products to institutional and industrial users for service in large institutions or for sale and further processing by other companies. PCA does not sell peanuts or peanut products directly to consumers in stores.

The expanded recall includes all peanuts (dry and oil roasted), granulated peanuts, peanut meal, peanut butter and peanut paste. All of the recalled peanuts and peanut products were made only at the company’s Blakely, Georgia facility; the lot numbers and a description of the products being recalled are listed at the end of this release. The Blakely, Georgia facility has stopped producing all peanut products.

Peanut Corporation of American released a statement tonight that includes the following:

“The goal of Peanut Corporation of America over the past 33 years has always been to
follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s good manufacturing practices in order to provide a safe product for consumers. It is because of our commitment to our customers and consumers that PCA has taken extraordinary measures to identify and recall all products that have been identified as presenting a potential risk."

"PCA uses only two highly reputable labs for product testing and they are widely used by the industry and employ good laboratory practices. PCA categorically denies any allegations that the Company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products."

"We want our customers and consumers to know that we are continuing to work day and night with the FDA and other officials to determine the source of the problem and ensure that it never happens again.”

Being proactive and keeping food that has tested positive for a pathogen off of the plates of consumers is good for public health.  Waiting until illnesses are reported is irresponsible and demonstrates a lack of concern for customers. PCA’s words say that they place the utmost importance in food safety, but their reported actions suggest that investigating and fixing a pathogen problem is only important when there are illnesses, not before they occur.

As for PCA’s customers, knowing the food safety practices of a supplier, no matter whether it’s at a farmers market or a multi-national is really important. If they’re in China or around the corner, they need to follow the rules and know how to reduce risks. This goes beyond relying on third-party audit results. Tracking where product goes and knowing what inputs went into it is the cornerstone of a good culture of food safety.

6 dead, 453 sick from Salmonella in peanut butter

In another example of, know thy suppliers, whether it’s around the corner or around the globe, Kellogg’s has announced its peanut butter cracker thingies – which are sorta gross — are on hold, including all Keebler and Austin brand crackers, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced that 453 are sick and at least five, possibly six are dead from Salmonella in peanut butter.

Yesterday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it notified anywhere from 30-85 companies that bought peanut butter or peanut paste from a Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) processing facility in Blakely, Georgia to test their products.

Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety center, said,

“This is a very active investigation, but we don’t yet have the data to provide consumers with specifics about what brands or products they should avoid.”

Laboratory tests by the Georgia Department of Agriculture have confirmed Salmonella contamination in some peanut butter manufactured by the PCA plant in Blakey, as have tests by health officials in Connecticut.

Connecticut’s Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell, Jr. said,

“This is the first unopened tub of King Nut peanut butter found in the country that is definitively identified as being tainted with salmonella. My office just received the results from the Connecticut Department of Public Health Laboratory confirming the presence of Salmonella Type B in an unopened tub.  This provides further evidence that some lots of King Nut brand peanut butter delivered to food service accounts are responsible for a recent outbreak of salmonella infections in consumers.”

King Nut stops talking

King Nut is evidently done talking about peanut butter.

Following a comprehensive recall by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) of 21 lots of its peanut butter—including the King Nut product found by the Minnesota Departments of Health and Agriculture to contain a strain of Salmonella genetically identical to that found in over 425 sick people across the nation—King Nut deferred all further questions about the outbreak to PCA.

Clamming up is not good risk communication.

However, after a couple unfounded claims, it may be wiser that King Nut stop talking.

King Nut’s last statement to the press was a letter from President and CEO Martin Kanan refuting the suggestion that contaminated King Nut peanut butter could have caused people in 43 different states to become sick.

Kanan argued, in bold font,

“We only distribute in seven states and therefore King Nut peanut butter could not possibly be the source of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella.
(King Nut peanut butter is distributed to food service companies in Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, Arizona, Idaho and New Hampshire.)”

Really? It couldn’t possibly? How do you know?

Do you track the consumption of all the peanut butter you distribute? Many states with sick people share borders with those seven states, don’t they? Maybe it’s not probable that all 425 people were sickened by King Nut peanut butter, but it’s still possible.

It’s a better idea to talk intelligently about those small possibilities than to make big claims that can’t really be proven.

Another silly claim I noticed was found upon closer inspection of the January 10 press release. There, I realized Kanan did say “sorry” once. But he also said,

“All other King Nut products are safe and not included in this voluntary recall.”

Really? They’re all safe? How do you know?

Do you have data? The pinky promise (i.e. certificate of safety) PCA gave you didn’t seem to hold up, so why should we believe you?

Talking about the possible risks—however minute—is the only way to gain the trust of an intelligent public. Pushing unfounded beliefs or assumptions onto society is just one effective way to create chaos.

Just ask the South Koreans.