Annals of peanut butter: it keeps getting worse

by revere, cross-posted from 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.