If anything should signal the dire shape of the US food safety problem it’s FDA’s announcement last week that it is extending the warning over Salmonella contaminated Peter Pan peanut butter to products bought as far back as October 2004. FDA warnings about Peter Pan peanut butter have been steadily pushed back from May 2006 to December 2005 and now to October 2004.
ConAgra makes Peter Pan peanut butter products at a single plant in Sylveter, Georgia. It is also marketed by Wal-Mart as Great Value Peanut Butter with lot number 2111. The product recall for the Peter Pan and Wal-Mart Great Value peanut butter brands wasn’t initiated until February 14 (Happy Valentine’s Day!), more than two years after the contamination might have occurred at the Georgia plant. A rise in cases of Salmonella serotype Tennessee was seen in the fall but identification of the source didn’t happen immediately. So this wasn’t a sudden or new problem.
Nor is it a small one. Peter Pan peanut butter is distributed in virtually every state and more than 60 countries. In bulk form it also finds its way into various non-retail products, such as Sonic Brand Ready-To-Use Peanut Butter Topping in 6 lb. 10.5 oz cans used in Sonic Peanut Butter Shakes, Fudge Shakes, Sundaes and Fudge Sundaes; Carvel Peanut Butter Topping in 6 lb. 10 oz. cans used in Chocolate Peanut Butter, Peanut Butter Treasure, Peanut Butter & Jelly; Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Sundae Dasher and other customized products containing the Peanut Butter Topping, including peanut butter flavored ice cream in ice cream cakes; and J. Hungerford Smith Peanut Butter Dessert Topping in 6 lb. 10 oz. cans, used by retail and restaurant outlets. In other words, it’s all over the place and the contaminated variety might have been out there since October 2004.
As of last week, 425 cases of Salmonella serovar Tennessee had been reported to CDC from 44 states, diagnosed between August 1 and February 15, 2006. Of the 351 for whom data were available, 20% had been hospitalized. No fatalities have been reported (CDC). If the contamination occurred as far back as suspected, however, there could be many more undetected cases.
This outbreak, which is probably still going on, illustrates at least two things. One is that modern food production is industrial strength in scale and consequence. One plant in Georgia has spread a serious pathogen into almost the entire United States and beyond and done it in forms difficult to track and bring under control. The second is that our food safety protections have yet to catch up to this. With tax cuts decimating public services, including food protection, we are less safe than we were.
Yes, I am turning this into a reminder of what taxes pay for, in this case a service that does protect you from hidden enemies. Real ones, not phantom ones. Ones that we know exist and we even know more or less where they exist. Go ahead and demand tax cuts, but just remember what they are “buying.” Less safety and more illness. This kind of penny-wise and pound foolish thinking is aided and enabled by wealthy corporations who don’t want to pay taxes and are delighted when tax cuts also leave them a free hand to conduct business in profitable but unsafe ways. For good measure they weaken legal liability so they can’t be sued for their negligence.
Meanwhile we are taking tax money and putting it in a big bonfire called the Iraq War and using the flames to burn Americans and Iraqis to death.