Effect Measure

The peanut butter with a side of salmonella story just keeps getting worse (other posts here, here, here, here, here, here). The toll so far is 8 dead, 575 confirmed salmonella cases (and undoubtedly many more never reported) and 1550 products recalled, one of the largest recalls in US history. The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) plant in Blakely, Georgia, sold peanut butter in bulk to institutions (like nursing homes and schools) and peanut paste and similar ingredients to many other companies. And even as it did so, its own and government agency records showed there was a problem. The last time the FDA inspected the plant was in 2001. As some observers remarked, it is like a roadmap for food safety reform.:

The FDA, which is responsible for regulating peanut processing plants, last inspected the plant in 2001, at a time when it only roasted and blanched peanuts. The agency only learned the company was making peanut butter in 2006, when it was notified by the state of Georgia.

Understaffed, the FDA contracted with Georgia to perform annual inspections. The FDA has delegated an increasing chunk of its inspection duties to the states, with varying results. The agency has refused requests for a copy of its contract with Georgia and declined to answer questions about it.

While FDA inspectors were not visiting the Blakely plant, Agriculture Department agents were.

USDA sent inspectors 10 times between 2001 and 2007 because the agency was buying its peanuts and peanut butter for the free lunch program, said Kent Politsch, a spokesman for the department’s Farm Service Agency.

But those inspectors were not looking at sanitary conditions or checking for salmonella or other contamination. “We are not food inspectors,” Politsch said. “We audit processes – we walk through and see whether they can produce the product.” (Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post via San Francisco Chronicle)

What did the FDA find in 2001?

The 2001 inspection found dead insects near peanuts and holes in the plant big enough for rodents to enter. Those inspectors also discovered that workers at the plant used an insecticide fogger in food-processing areas and didn’t wash the exposed equipment. They also found dirty duct tape wrapped on broken equipment. (Brett J. Blackledge and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, AP)

PCA itself had found salmonella in its products on at least 12 separate occasions. It previously said it retested them and only sent them out when there was a subsequent negative test (sometimes from a different lab, which had already raised suspicions of test shopping). Now the FDA says that records indicate that products were shipped before subsequent negative tests were obtained or even without further retesting. There is currently no requirement that the company notify anyone that they have found their products are contaminated. It is only illegal to sell or distribute such products.

One of the customers who got possible tainted products was the USDA, FDA’s sister agency that shares responsibility for a safe food supply (FDA is responsible for safety inspections of food plants like this one, USDA for meat). In 2007 schools in California, Minnesota and Idaho got 32 truckloads of roasted peanuts and peanut butter from the USDA under the federal free lunch program. USDA is advising the affected school districts to stop serving those products but it admits they have probably most been eaten.

This is a small company that has had a big effect. The New York Times is reporting sales of peanut products is off 25%, as consumers react prudently. The product recall seems to have expanded exponentially since first announced and people don’t want to have to check FDA websites to see if some item has been recalled, especially as things keep being added to the list:

The J. M. Smucker Company, which makes Jif peanut butter, placed ads in newspapers across the country on Friday, including The New York Times, that said the company did not buy peanuts from the Peanut Corporation of America, whose plant in Blakely, Ga., was found to be the source of the outbreak. The advertisement included a 35-cent coupon for a jar of Jif. ?Obviously this has had a very negative impact on the industry,? said Maribeth Badertscher, a spokeswoman for Jif.

ConAgra Foods, the maker of Peter Pan peanut butter, is planning to run a similar newspaper ad on Sunday, along with a 50-cent coupon.

The contaminated peanut butter traced to the Georgia plant represents a small percentage of the total $800 million in annual sales by the peanut butter companies in the United States. But the public relations problem for the rest of the industry is unlikely to ease anytime soon. (Andrew Martin, Liz Robbins, New York Times)

It’s typical that the food industry would only wake up to the food safety problem when it hurts their bottom line. Great damage has now been done, not just to the peanut industry, but to the brand, Made in America, which is now joining another notorious label, Made in China when it comes to product safety:

While American consumers have been shunning most brands of peanut butter, shoppers around the world have been specifically looking for the USA as a product source as data for not buying. According to emails coming in to Medical News Today from around the world, America’s reputation as a source of safe nutritional products is in tatters. It will take a long time for that to be recovered. As one consumer from England wrote in “I have never worried about USA sourced foods, until the last couple of years..If the food today says USA, and I can’t cook it, I don’t buy it – no matter what it is.” (Medical News Today)

What’s next? An industry desperate to restore its image. New administration. Tainted food consumed mostly by children (and half the cases have been in children). Graphic demonstration that the system is broken. And a Democratic Congress unlikely to look the other way.

It’s time to fix this. Now. While the time is right.


  1. #1 Paul Murray
    February 8, 2009

    The very fact that one US government has to have a “contract” with another one to do the job of governance speaks volumes.

  2. #2 Moopheus
    February 8, 2009

    “And a Democratic Congress unlikely to look the other way.”

    Why would you say this? Congress has a long bipartisan history of doing not very much to put any teeth into the FDA or USDA’s ability to inspect or enforce the law. Do you see any reason for this to change? Or do you think this event is finally bad enough to make it enough of a public issue to force Congress’s hand?

  3. #3 MoM
    February 8, 2009

    Understaffed, the FDA contracted with Georgia to perform annual inspections.

    This is nothing new. 20 years ago, when I was a “sanitarian” (before they became Environmental Public Health Specialists), I did FDA contract inspections in food manufacturing, warehousing and shipping operations.

    Other than general food service and food manufacturing training, I had exactly no preparation for it except for a brief course in filling out the FDA forms. It was a money making deal for our state health department (I think we got $75 for each one) and the push was to do more. FDA was happy to oblige. I doubt much has changed.

  4. #4 Ian
    February 9, 2009

    “It was a money making deal for our state health department (I think we got $75 for each one)…”

    So you didn’t work for peanuts?

  5. #5 Jeff Koeze
    February 9, 2009

    There is exactly one reform issue here, as this post and Ian’s comment makes clear — money for more regular inspections and for proper training of inspectors. Everything else — especially grand federal reorganization plans — is a sideshow either naively, or intentionally, keeping the eyes off the $$ ball.

    I’ll also add, as somebody who worked with state and local health departments in North Carolina for nine years, and who is now subject to inspections by excellent and professional Michigan inspectors (under FDA contract) the idea that somehow the feds are better qualified or can do a better job than local inspectors is unsupportable. (Remember, it is the state lab in Minnesota that is getting the hero treatment.)

  6. #6 The Gorsuch Wink
    February 9, 2009

    Jeff: You’re right, federal, state, and local inspectors are all equally competent to carry out the inspections. The important thing is that they are actually getting done and are looking at proper environmental conditions.

    It looks like the Georgia Ag inspectors missed a number of problems within the plant during their inspections, or at least did little to enforce corrective measures. USDA inspectors did not even attempt to look for sanitary violations. Whether the inspectors represent federal, state, or local agencies, they should probably be observing sanitary conditions and enforcing corrective measures to a benchmark level, something far greater than what they’ve been doing the past few years.

  7. #7 Marymary
    February 10, 2009

    I used to work as a retail food inspector at the local level. Training from the state was spotty. I had to memorize the food code, as there was virtually no training at the local level either. Some people in the office doing the same job did not have college degrees, let alone degrees in environmental health. The people who ran the office knew NOTHING about food safety and sanitation. They were more interested in “working with” food establishments, rather protecting the public.

    We were told not to write up violations unless we gave a warning first. If the same violation was seen on a subsequent inspection, then we could write it up. We were required to do the same number of inspections each day with no concern over the level of risk. A huge supermarket with a deli, seafood dept., meat dept., hot bar, multiple coolers and freezers, etc., was given the same attention as a small gas station that had only an ice cream freezer and a milk cooler.

    I realize that local health depts. don’t usually inspect large food suppliers, but I suspect that the pressures to “work with” the food establishments rather than protect the public exist at the local, state, and federal levels.
    Our state health dept., like the local one, seemed obsessed with “working with” food establishments rather than enforcing the law, even after they were criticized when years of non-enforcement against a wholesale bakery came to light.

    One thing that really scared me, however, was when we were invited to a “training” on acidified foods. The FDA had scheduled the training with the state health dept. Locals were invited mainly because the acidified food producers in the state did not sign up for the training as expected. The state had to justify having the FDA come for the training, so they coerced local health depts, which had no jurisdiction over acidified food manufacturers, and even their own hospital and nursing home inspectors to attend the training sessions. Virtually no one participating in the training would ever inspect producers of acidified foods. Neither the state health dept. nor the FDA reps seemed to care, however.

    During the two-day training, it came to light that FDA did not require that food manufacturers register with them before operating. Just about everyone in the room was stunned. Even at our pitiful local health dept., people had to submit plans before building or remodeling a food establishment. There was some sort of registration process with the FDA, but food manufacturers were not required to submit plans or have a pre-operational inspection. I don’t know whether that is still true, but since this training took place only a few years ago, it probably is. Does anyone have some more knowledge about this?

    Sorry for the long post. 🙁

  8. #8 Hank Roberts
    February 10, 2009

    The FBI just raided the Peanut Company of America.

    Look at the picture of the building — doesn’t the name on the company’s sign say


  9. #9 Marymary
    February 10, 2009

    The AP is running a series of articles on the peanut butter fiasco. The article below is about the FDA relying on state food inspectors.


  10. #10 Gindy
    February 10, 2009

    The PCA shut down a Texas plant that tested positive for salmonella. Seems to be a nation wide type of problem with this organization.

  11. #11 g336
    February 11, 2009

    It gets “better”… apparently the Texas plant had never even been registered or taken out the proper permits with the state! So the Texas authorities didn’t even know that this plant existed until it was mentioned in the news a short while ago.

    Revere, it’s time to put antisocial personality disorder on your radar. An economy run by sociopaths is a pandemic waiting to happen. There’s a book, *Snakes in Suits,* co-authored by Dr. Hare who is a recognized expert on sociopathy, that would be worthwhile reading on this topic.

  12. #12 pogge
    February 11, 2009

    This turned up in the Canadian media this morning:
    Peanut Co. owner urged shipping tainted products.

    Apparently the gentleman in question was “worried about lost sales.” Did someone upthread say something about sociopaths?

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