We are getting the first hints of a potential foodborne vehicle for the multi-state salmonella outbreak that began in September. We’ve seen it before:
The source of the outbreak of Salmonella [t]yphimurium that has sickened at least 400 and may have contributed to one death has been identified in Minnesota as King Nut peanut butter. Peanut butter tainted with the genetic fingerprint matching the outbreak was tested by the Minnesota Health Department. The product is suspected as the source of the nation-wide illnesses, which began showing up in September 2008 and have been documented in 42 states.
“The signs started pointing to something like peanut butter with a longer shelf-life,” said foodborne illness attorney Bill Marler. “It started to look a lot like the pattern that emerged in the 2006 outbreak.”
Marler`s firm, food poisoning powerhouse Marler Clark, handled the cases of many of the compensated victims of the 2006 Peter Pan/Great Value outbreak, which was traced to a Georgia plant owned by ConAgra. (Press release from Marler’s firm via Reuters) [NB: Commenter Evan correctly points out Marler's judgment about the genetics of the salmonella found in the peanut butter is premature; the cases have been linked nationally but tests on the peanut butter sample are still underway]
Once again the first word comes from the excellent public health laboratory at the Minnesota Department of Health, before any word or confirmation from the vaunted CDC. Maybe the top brass there are too busy re-doing their resumes as the Obama era dawns. No one can say anything there until checking with the top. But in Minnesota they were hard at work and talking, with their 30 cases part of a 42 state nationwide outbreak that has so far sickened almost 400 and put 70 in the hospital. By taking food histories of the cases they discovered that many or most had eaten King Nut brand creamy peanut butter. They retrieved a sample in a nursing home with cases and discovered a genetic match for the outbreak strain in an institutional-sized (5 lb.) container. King Nut is an Ohio firm but is only the distributor of a product made by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) of Lynchburg, Virginia, with processing operations in Virginia, Georgia and Texas (CNN). While King Nut does not sell directly to consumers, only institutions, it isn’t known if PCA sells to other distributors with other brand names. King Nut is recalling all its creamy peanut butter immediately.
This is the second mass salmonella outbreak associated with a commercial peanut butter operation in recent years. The other was in Peter Pan peanut butter made in a ConAgra plant in Georgia. An informative comment by Moderator LL at ProMed notes that while peanut butter is not generally thought of as a vehicle for salmonella, there is at least one previous report (Australia, 1996) and that salmonella spp. seem to do fine in that environment, retaining viable organisms at 5 degrees C. for 24 weeks (6 months), although at usual (“room”) temperatures retention was less. There is also some evidence (cites in the ProMed comment) that pasteurization is not sufficient to eliminate salmonella if it is in the peanut butter. Peanut butter is a food that is in mass distribution, often to institutions like schools and nursing homes. Dramatic failures in high volume food production facilities like this are just one more symptom of a badly broken food protection system.
As a new administration prepares to move into the house, they will find it has been trashed by vandals. Time to bail out public health. Because it’s sinking.