Effect Measure

While we were busy with the pageant of the new administration, we are still cleaning up the messes from past administrations (not just Bush although Bush was the examplar of incompetence). Past messes like a broken food safety system. The latest example, of course, is the peanut butter and peanut paste salmonella debacle (see here, here, here), which just keeps getting worse. Bulk supplied institutional peanut butter containers were the first to be implicated and the connection was first made from nursing homes that used these. Supermarket peanut butter sold to consumers wasn’t implicated. But the Georgia plant that made the peanut butter also made peanut paste that was used as an ingredient in baked goods and many other products sold to consumers. About a third of the cases had no history of eating peanut butter. This was now looking like an ingredient outbreak as well. Now we have confirmation:

The Food and Drug Administration said Monday that salmonella was found in a package of peanut butter sandwich crackers made by Kellogg.

Kellogg said Monday that a previously recalled peanut butter-sandwich cracker tested positive for salmonella as a rapidly growing national recall widened to include more companies’ peanut snacks because of potential contamination.

Kellogg’s Austin Quality Foods Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter is the first product sold to consumers that’s known to have tested positive for the salmonella strain initially linked only to peanut butter sold to institutions, such as nursing homes. (USAToday)

Kellogg’s is not the only one:

The new recalls, including one from General Mills (GIS) for Lärabar and JamFrakas snack bars, means that about a dozen companies have pulled products, including cookies, crackers and ice cream. Products were sold in stores such as Wal-Mart and Food Lion.

Wegmans also recalled some ice cream containing peanut butter.

Kroger said Monday that it is recalling Private Selection Peanut Butter Passion Ice Cream sold in select stores because the peanut butter in the ice cream was supplied by Peanut Corporation of America and may be contaminated with Salmonella. Stores under the following names are included in this recall: City Market, Fred Meyer, Fry’s, King Soopers, QFC and Smith’s.

It’s not just the US, either. Canada is issuing a health hazard alert for a list of products, and the ingredients from the Peanut Corporation of America plant have gone into products sold in Korea and Haiti. Probably other countries will be added to the list.

FDA is now announcing a voluntary recall of Meijer’s products. The FDA is saying that the investigation is “very active and dynamic,” but not everyone thinks it has gone with all deliberate speed. The head of food safety for Costco is quoted as saying it was taking a long time to sort things out. The FDA complains it does not have authority to order mandatory recalls. I don’t know the law or their powers, but if it is true, it is a glaring hole in the food safety net.

So much to fix. So little time.


  1. #1 Flaky
    January 21, 2009

    I wonder what kind of a dose of X-rays would it take to kill salmonella. Would it be feasible to have a household X-ray device for sterilization of food stuffs?

  2. #2 revere
    January 21, 2009

    Flaky: X-ray devices are licensed in many countries for a good reason. They produce x-rays. You are more likely to sterilize yourself first so you can wait around for your cancer without the hindrance of children if everyone had a home x-ray machine. Not a good idea. X-rays are more dangerous than salmonella.

  3. #3 J-Dog
    January 21, 2009

    revere et al: What about micro-waving a peanut butter jar?

    Would that kill any/all samonela?

    Inquiring Minds Want To Know!

    (I have NEW PB Jar at home for the kid, which is NOT on any recall list, but….)

  4. #4 revere
    January 21, 2009

    J-Dog: So far there are no consumer PB products involved (presumably because PCA never made things that wound up in this kind of product, just institutional sized products). You’d have to heat the contents to around 160 degrees F. to be sure you knocked out the salmonella and that sounds more dangerous to me (if there is even enough water in the PB) than eating the PB. If it were in my kitchen and my kid I’d probably use it (Mrs. R. is appalled at the age of things from the refrigerator I will eat, so maybe going by my habits isn’t a good indicator). If you are concerned, just toss the stuff.

  5. #5 Christine
    January 21, 2009

    If you don’t want to throw the bp away, you could make peanutbutter cookies. They bake at around 180°.

  6. #6 Alex Besogonov
    January 21, 2009


    I was going to suggest gamma-ray irradiation 🙂

    Alas, not very possible at home.

  7. #7 drdrA
    January 21, 2009

    The very scary thing about Salmonella in peanut butter is that this is not a traditional vehicle where we expect Salmonella to be. We expect it in livestock products and eggs. Peanut butter is heavily consumed by populations that are at higher risk for serious consequences of salmonellosis- kids, and the elderly… which is why we are seeing so many deaths associated with these kind of outbreaks.

    People should be asking- what kind of $$ are being spent, and what kind of research is being done to figure out how this organism grows in environments like this- on food products, in peanut butter etc. I bet lots of people would be shocked to find out that we don’t commit many federal resources to this.

  8. #8 MoM
    January 21, 2009

    The current list of all products recalled due to possible Salmonella contamination is available on FDA’s website here: http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/salmonellatyph.html There is a search function for particular products, as well as by product type.

    CDC’s Webpage to track the progress of the outbreak & investigation is here: http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/typhimurium/ which is also linked from the bottom of the FDA page.

    @drdrA – The water activity of peanut butter is supposed to be about 0.70.

    The water activity (a w) of a food is the ratio between the vapor pressure of the food itself, when in a completely undisturbed balance with the surrounding air media, and the vapor pressure of distilled water under identical conditions. A water activity of 0.80 means the vapor pressure is 80 percent of that of pure water.

    FDA says anything below 0.85 is low enough to retard bacterial growth. http://www.fda.gov/ora/Inspect_ref/itg/itg39.html

  9. #9 Susan Och
    January 21, 2009

    I keep wondering about those Girl Scout cookies I ordered last week. Guess I should have stuck with the Thin Mints.

  10. #10 revere
    January 21, 2009

    Susan: Girl Scout cookies not involved, according to news stories. But I prefer the thin mints anyway.

  11. #11 Marymary
    January 21, 2009

    FDA does not have the authority to mandate recalls, but the Acheson (sp?) said that they would seek that authority. I’m thinking he said that a year or two ago.

  12. #12 skyotter
    January 21, 2009

    if i wonder aloud whether someone is testing weaponized salmonella — or rather, testing vectors for *transmitting* weaponized salmonilla to the public — would i have to put on a tinfoil hat?

  13. #13 revere
    January 21, 2009

    skyotter: if i wonder aloud whether someone is testing weaponized salmonella — or rather, testing vectors for *transmitting* weaponized salmonilla to the public — would i have to put on a tinfoil hat?,/blockquote>


  14. #14 drdrA
    January 22, 2009

    MoM- Perhaps I should have said ‘survival’ instead of growth- and just because low water retards bacterial growth doesn’t mean it stops it completely. Secondly, susceptible populations get infected with a lower infectious dose… so it doesn’t take a whole lot of organisms in these populations… all the organism has to do is survive in

    Skyotter- Salmonella has already been used as a bioterror agent… in a small domestic attack in Oregon, I believe.

  15. #15 jim
    January 22, 2009

    FDA is light years behind the USDA when it comes to inspection and food safety. USDA just has authority over meat products. Other foods are FDA-regulated. Most foodborne outbreaks are not meat-related. This is a public education thing that needs to be addressed. Irradiation of various designs and substances is being done, but not on a large scale. It can affect the quality of the food, be much more costly, endanger plant workers, and may not be acceptable to the consumer (depends on market, food, population, etc). In addition, food can be contaminated at any point between farm and your plate. Surveillance, consumer education, and systems evaluation are the best ways to decrease the number, duration, and severity of these outbreaks. There is no silver bullet. Pathogenic bacteria are everywhere.

  16. #16 drdrA
    January 22, 2009

    Jim- To my knowledge that is not true- the vast majority of the salmonellosis in this country is meat, poultry, and egg related. The large outbreaks that receive all the publicity recently have been from these non-traditional sources, but they are still only a small (ok tiny) fraction of the estimated 1.4 million annual cases in this country.

  17. #17 Lab Cat
    January 23, 2009

    Thanks for posting this, I haven’t had time this week to get on top of anything except putting lectures together.

    Unfortunately, the FDA does not have the power to call for mandatory recalls. Also, in response to Jim’s comment, the FDA is hampered because its remit is larger than USDA’s but its budget is much smalller. The USDA is responsible for the saftey of meat, poultry and egg and some directly related products; the FDA has everything else and drugs and dietary supplements.

    I wrote about the concerns around the FDA in Sept 2007 http://cdavies.wordpress.com/2007/09/20/fda-in-trouble/.

  18. #18 jim
    January 23, 2009

    oops! I should have looked at the data below before making my biased and anecdotal statement (also, i was talking all foodborne illness, not just Sal. sp). However, this data does show a larger percentage of cases than what common perception of modes of transmissions are for foodborne outbreaks. It can fluctuate from year to year, but the mode of transmission looks about even between meat/nonmeat vehicles (lots of unpasteurized milk outbreaks as well. is that considered meat? maybe we should talk animal vs. nonanimal vehicles?). lots of missing data and undetermined transmission all make for educated guesses anyway. One thing is for certain: the vehicles are varied and the pathogens are opportunistic. This is the most recent data I could find: http://www.cdc.gov/foodborneoutbreaks/outbreak_data.htm

    the pathogens themselves are certainly of animal origin (human in some circumstances), but nonmeat vehicles of transmission will probably become more common as surveillance improves. Maybe the increased attention to this in the media will help mitigate nonmeat vehicle transmission outbreaks as people become more aware of their potential?

  19. #19 drdrA
    January 23, 2009

    Jim- Hey thanks for the link- that’s just what I need for some material I’m preparing to teach. As for looking across food borne bacterial pathogens- it’s hard to generalize, I think. Some of these colonize the livestock intestine, some of them (like staph- which causes a food poisoning among other things) are not really considered a problem specifically related to a particular food source…

  20. #20 Clay
    February 2, 2009

    If all of the peanut butter at the plant had passed through Gama Radiation in the end process, it would have eliminated the problem entirely. I don’t know why they don’t do that as a regular practice… Other than the fear tactics put out by various groups that make it should like you will be eating radio active food… which is completely false. The process would completely illiminate this problem.

  21. #21 revere
    February 3, 2009

    clay: There are major policy issues regarding distributed facilities for radiating food. There are also some scientific ones regarding food quality and chemistry, but for me the bigger issue relates to occupational and environmental safety. It’s not a no brainer. There are established and cost effective procedures (HAACP) to safe food production. They were obviously violated in this plant. Your position is essentially that with gamma radiation they can be as dirty as they want to be. But there are trade-offs.

  22. #22 Tara
    July 27, 2009

    The water activity of peanut butter is actually around 0.3-0.5. I’m doing my master’s project on new ways to kill salmonella in peanut butter, so we have research out there to keep you guys safe! However, salmonella’s a hard bugger to kill in such a low water environment. I’m fiddling around with increasing the water activity to a 0.7-0.9 range, and it works, but the peanut butter’s fat emulsion doesn’t like it so well.

    I would also propose that the reason that radiation isn’t used on peanut butter is the cost, and more importantly, the association that lay people have with radiation (i.e. cancer, bad). I don’t even think it’s considered a process, and has to be listed as an ingredient on the label (I’m pretty sure they have to do this for milk), which doesn’t help the stigma.

    Another thing to think about is how much food is produced that isn’t tested on a regular basis. I know testing costs money and it takes time, but I think that if it saves lives, then we should be testing a larger portion of the food we eat, especially foods that are consumed by the young and elderly (such as PB).

  23. #23 revere
    July 27, 2009

    Tara: I’m pretty surprised Salmonella can make it in water activity that low. I know certain halophiles like Staph can, but didn’t know that was true also of Salmonella. If you increase the water activity, aren’t you going to make it better for bugs to grow?

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