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Salmonella in Peanut Butter: How Did It Happen?

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 14:56:51 PM PST


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We don't know the full story about how salmonella got into peanut butter yet, but we know a lot. Below, I will share with you what I've been able to find. If you want to know which products are being recalled, I encourage you to check here (for the most recently added foods) and here (for the foods recalled as of a few days ago).
Jill Richardson :: Salmonella in Peanut Butter: How Did It Happen?
It all started with a few containers of tainted peanut butter - one at a Minnesota nursing home, and one at a school in Connecticut. Already, people were sick, and the strain of salmonella in the peanut butter (King Nut brand) genetically matched the strain that was causing the outbreak. They traced that peanut butter back to a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, GA.

Since then, PCA has recalled a number of products produced at that plant since July 1, 2008. Any company that uses PCA peanut products to make their foods or institutions that use PCA peanut butter have subsequently joined in the recall - although the list of recalled products still seems to be growing daily. No jars of peanut butter that are sold to consumers at retail locations are affected.

Why is the list still growing daily? Here's what the New York Times had to say:

The plant also produced peanut paste, a more concentrated product used in candy, crackers and many other kinds of foods. Tracking how the paste travels through the food supply can be challenging, because several companies can be involved in making the final food. For example, one manufacturer might coat the paste in chocolate and make a peanut butter cup, which is then sold to another company that mixes it into ice cream that may or may not also contain peanut butter. A grocery chain might buy that ice cream and sell it under a private label.

So how did the salmonella GET into the peanut butter in the first place? Well THAT is still a mystery. Here are a few things I've heard:

From Marion Nestle:

How did Salmonella get into the peanut butter? They don't know yet, and it's a puzzle.  Investigators found traces of Salmonella in the plant, but  not the particular strain found in the peanut butter.

Then there's Bill Marler's take:

How does salmonella get into peanut butter?

Feces from some animal is a strong possibility. A leak in the roof, for example, caused one of the early outbreaks. How salmonella got into the water that was on the roof, no one knows for sure. Maybe birds, for instance, which accumulate around peanut butter processing plants.

The roasting of peanuts is the only step that will kill the salmonella. If contamination occurs after the roasting process, the game is over and salmonella is going to survive. Studies have shown that salmonella can survive for many months in peanut butter once it's present. Fatty foods are also more protective of salmonella, so when it gets into the acid of the stomach -- which is our first line of defense -- it may not get destroyed. Peanut butter, being a highly fatty food, could survive better.

And, last, here's something that blogger AAF found as a comment on a blog:

The source was a broken sprinkler system which dripped from a leaky roof onto the line filling the jars. As with most problems in our food supply, file this one under "maximaze output--minimize expenses".

There is no way I can substantiate the broken sprinkler theory because it was just a comment on a blog, but it's about as likely as any other explanation we've got.

At last count, I heard about 486 illnesses, over 100 hospitalized, and somewhere between 7 and 11 deaths from this outbreak. That list is expected to grow, according to the New York Times:

Out of 486 cases of salmonella illness reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 people have died and 107 have been hospitalized. The most recent person sickened fell ill on Jan 8. Since it takes up to three weeks for cases to be reported to the disease agency, more are expected.

If you're as upset as I am, now might be a great time to email your members of Congress and let them know that you don't think it's acceptable that people can die from eating peanut butter. One thing you can ask them to do about it is to co-sponsor Dick Durbin's Safe Food Act (the bill was introduced and never passed in the last session of Congress, so he'll have to reintroduce it).

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