Salmonella recalls grow; Obama orders review of FDA operations

As the number of recalled products topped 800, U.S. President Barack Obama said this morning he is ordering a “complete review” of the Food and Drug Administration after it failed to detect shipments of salmonella-contaminated peanut products.

In an interview taped Sunday and aired this morning on the television gabfest, Today, Obama said the agency’s failure to recognize and intercept the products was only the latest of numerous “instances over the last several years” in which “the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch.”

“At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter.”

USA Today today reported that the recall, one of the largest ever, started with bulk peanut butter, spread to crackers and cookies and has engulfed products as diverse as kettle corn, pad Thai and trail mix, with over 800 recalls and many more expected this week.

Robert Brackett, senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said anecdotal evidence indicates that sales of all peanut-related products, even unaffected peanut butters, are slipping, adding,

"All it takes is a little company, and it has a huge ripple effect.”

The GMA says Peanut Corporation of America supplied less than 1% of peanut products sold in the U.S. Still, the FDA says the company has more than 300 customers, many of whom used PCA’s products as an ingredient.

Brackett fears consumers will tire of checking recall lists and begin shunning anything with peanuts. Past food scares have shown that to be true.

When asked by CBC Radio in Sudbury, Ontario this morning, “what’s a consumer to do,” I said,

“Avoid the stuff for now. It may not be fair, but the recall list is growing so fast, it’s prudent. And now folks have an idea what people with peanut allergies have to go through.”

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.

PB and Salmonella: where are the third-party audits?

Watching the number of recalls continue to grow in the Salmonella in peanut butter debacle, I’m wondering why is it taking some of these companies so long to issue a recall? Today it was Jenny Craig and dozens others. My guess is these distributors have no idea what’s in the products they are hawking and it takes weeks to track down such info. If a food processor really knows its suppliers, it should take hours or minutes to figure out if the suspect ingredient is in some kid’s peanut cracker snacks or Kirstie Alley’s Jenny Craig bar (she’s not with the program anymore? Oh).

And sure, everyone’s calling for better government oversight, but what about the third-party auditors? If Peanut Corporation of America was supplying paste and industrial tubs of peanut butter to all these processors and distributers, they must have had third-party auditors through the peanut processing plant in Blakely, Georgia. What problems did the auditors uncover? And what was done about such problems?

FDA says peanut plant knowingly shipped Salmonella-tainted product

Michael Rogers of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Georgia, shipped out products that managers knew might be tainted with Salmonella.

"The team identified approximately 12 instances in 2007 and 2008 where the firm identified some type of salmonella … and released the products."

Records at the plant showed that after the company tested the peanut products and found salmonella, it sent at least some to an outside lab that showed no contamination. The products were then illegally shipped for sale, Rogers said.

"There (were) no steps taken (by) the firm as far as cleaning or to minimize cross-contamination.”

An FDA inspection of the plant also found at least two strains of salmonella bacteria at the plant, although they were strains that have not been associated with the current outbreak.

Details of precisely what the FDA found will be released on Wednesday, he added.

Kellogg connection to Salmonella outbreak?

Kellogg has asked stores to halt the sales of some of their peanut butter snacks as it was announced that one of their suppliers is Peanut Corp. of America. 

The items include toasted peanut butter sandwich crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwich crackers, cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers, and peanut butter-chocolate sandwich crackers.

This connection might be what was missing for many of the outbreak victims who have not been associated with eating peanut butter.  Maybe they had some peanut butter snacks? I’m sure the state and federal epidemiologists will be/have been looking at this link.

From the press release:

"PCA is one of several peanut paste suppliers that the company uses in its Austin® and Keebler® branded peanut butter sandwich crackers.

Kellogg Company’s investigation has not indicated any concerns, nor has the Company received any consumer illness complaints about these products. Nonetheless, Kellogg Company is taking precautionary measures including putting a hold on any inventory in its control, removing product from retail store shelves, and encouraging customers and consumers to hold and not eat these products until regulatory officials complete their investigation of PCA and Kellogg provides further information as to the resolution of this issue.

With 2007 sales of nearly $12 billion, Kellogg Company is the world’s leading producer of cereal and a leading producer of convenience foods, including cookies, crackers, toaster pastries, cereal bars, frozen waffles, and meat alternatives."

Good move by Kellogg for sure. If one of your suppliers is suspect, or has been linked to illnesses, take a look at where that product might have been used and figure out whether the risk has made it to your customers.

In a local connection for me, it was reported by ABC 11 here in Raleigh that the sandwich crackers on hold are solely produced at a plant in Cary, North Carolina. The FDA isn’t saying whether they are inspecting the Cary plant.

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.

Talking about peanut butter

I know Doug has some beef with peanut butter. He’s got every right to avoid the foods he can’t trust to keep his family healthy.

I, on the other hand, have a great relationship with peanut butter. It’s the nutrition that keeps me in. Once, for a high school project, I served a church full of friends and family a slew of dishes made with peanut butter and then told them how they were being saved from heart disease, breast cancer, and diabetes with those delicious monounsaturated fats and a low glycemic index.

This was after writing a 20-page paper on the nutritional excellence of the dietary staple. (Elizabeth Weise of USA Today called it a “sandwich spread”, but that’s entirely too limiting… maybe even offensive.)

Nutrition, however, is no consolation to people sickened by Salmonella contamination. Barfing (or even barfing potential) can turn anyone against a food pretty fast.

That would be why it was so important for the companies involved to start talking to consumers at the first sign of a connection between sick people and King Nut peanut butter.

King Nut Companies was first up, making it abundantly clear that the peanut butter in question “is NOT manufactured by King Nut,” but is merely distributed by them.

In another release, King Nut explained,

“Before distributing peanut butter, we require certification from our supplier that the product has been tested and is safe.”

While that fact relieves them of some responsibility, it does NOT remove all of it. Acquiring food from safe sources is expected of the company with their name on the jar.


I felt a little more love coming from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), who manufactured the peanut butter. Their press release opened with an expression of “deep concern about the apparent finding of salmonella in a container of one of its products.”

PCA’s statement went on to explain,

“PCAs facility and products are frequently and rigorously tested for salmonella and other microbiological contamination, including hourly sampling during processing and subsequent analysis by an outside, independent laboratory. No salmonella has ever been found in any of PCAs product.”

The public disclosure of product and environmental sampling is important in good risk communication. I hope to see more of this as the investigation into the source of the contamination continues.