Annals of peanut butter: learning lessons

People who make products containing peanut butter are seeing a dramatic drop in sales because of the salmonella problem (other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here). That includes jarred peanut butters found in supermarkets (down 22% over the same period last year), although none are known to be contaminated. The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) only sold peanut butter in bulk, to institutions and as an ingredient (peanut paste). Consumers aren't differentiating. This seems like a fairly prudent behavior, since everyday new products are being recalled, now surpassing a stunning 1900. Prudent or not, if you are the maker of Jif or Peter Pan peanut butter it is taking a bite out of your bottom line (and the losses are sticking to the roof of your losses). So they are taking out expensive ads to reassure consumers their products are safe. Take this notice on the Peter Pan website:

We’d like to assure you that Peter Pan Peanut Butter is safe to eat and no varieties of Peter Pan Peanut Butter have been recalled.

ConAgra Foods, the maker of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, has confirmed that none of the ingredients used to make Peter Pan Peanut Butter come from Peanut Corporation of America, the company linked to the government’s current salmonella investigation.

We are extremely confident in the safety protocols, including stringent quality testing, for Peter Pan Peanut Butter. (January 28, 2009)

As far as anyone knows, Peter Pan peanut butter is safe, even though as a consumer you might wonder about a notice that is more than 2 weeks old in the context of a rapidly accelerating product recall. If you have any kind of memory you might also recall that the ConAgra Peter Pan Peanut Butter plant was the source of another big peanut butter cum salmonella outbreak in spring of 2007 (see here, here). Just prior to that episode they would have similarly assured us they were confident of their safety protocols and stringent quality testing (you don't think they would have said differently, do you?). This isn't just a problem with PCA products.

I'm not trying to let PCA off the hook, and it's a pretty big hook they're on. Summoned before a Congressional panel on Wednesday, the PCA CEO on advice of counsel availed himself of his Constitutional rights against self-incrimination. I don't blame him for this. Given the fact he and his company are under criminal investigation, this seems like very prudent legal advice. But the problem is much bigger than PCA. When Senator Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat from Iowa who is not so terrific when it comes to agriculture issues says that peanut butter is safe to eat, I wonder on what basis he can make that claim (other than the one that in this outbreak, jarred peanut butter has so far not been implicated). A industry news site (The Food Examiner), in a piece that clearly accentuated the positive, went onto say:

When Peanut Corporation of America got sloppy, it was more than a betrayal of our faith as its customers, it was a violation of something much deeper. As Harkin pointed out, more than 76 million Americans are sickened with food poisoning each year and 5,000 people die. Peanut butter, in its hygienic jars with tightly sealed lids, seemed impervious to all that.

This recall, as Harkin said, takes us back to the days before truth in advertising laws and before regulations about health standards in food production. Suddenly, the things we should have to worry about least are a source of anxiety and - potentially - death. Food safety in the United States "is a patchwork system".

“Beware of what you eat,” Harkin said. “You’re on your own.”

It doesn't have to be that way. (Eric Burkett, Food Examiner)

While it doesn't have to be that way, currently it is that way, which means that nothing is automatically safe. The FDA is starting to make some changes as the result of the outbreak (for example, they are likely to designate peanut butter a "high risk" food which would trigger additional regulatory requirements), but the problems go far beyond the possibly criminal behavior of PCA. The food safety system is broken and ineffective. PCA happened because the cops weren't on the beat. The food industry was a lawless neighborhood under the Bush administration, the food police spread thin, not very inclined to act aggressively and friendlier to the local toughs than warranted. When a company CEO disregards tests showing salmonella in his product (tests he was under no obligation to divulge to the FDA), tells his employees to "turn them loose," referring to the contaminated peanut products, and exhorts his employees to turn the peanuts into money, this is a situation where the CEO didn't fear being caught. And he wouldn't have been except that a CDC surveillance system picked up a multistate outbreak of salmonella that was traced back to PCA.

There are at least two big lessons here (probably more, but I'll settle for these two). The first is the obvious one that just as the financial industry giants were "too big to fail," the food industry is too important not to regulate tightly. If a company making only 1% of the nation's peanut products can do this much damage, it's because it is on the one end of a very long lever. When even small food industry companies make mistakes, the other end of the lever moves a long distance. It will probably take more than just tinkering with the FDA to do it right. A new, integrated food safety agency is probably required. Congresswoman Rose DeLauro (D-CT) is proposing this and it seems like a good idea.

The second lesson is about public health infrastructure. Over half the 600 salmonella cases are in children (who eat more than their share of peanut butter products), but if we didn't have the PulseNet surveillance system they'd still be eating PCA peanut products and still be getting sick. Surveillance systems are the poor stepchild of public health. They often are the first to go when budgets are cut. They don't have a public constituency because they mostly operate in the background and aren't sexy or easy to understand. They are the routine grunt work of public health data.

But we need them. Badly. Meanwhile I'm going to have a peanut butter sandwich. Because they say they are safe.

More like this

I think the original word of the outbreak came from "Team Diarrhea", the enteric investigation team at the Minnesota Department of Health. The folks at Pulsenet confirmed it was a multi-state outbreak when they started seeing identical PFGE results from across the country.

Surveillance systems are the poor stepchild of public health. They often are the first to go when budgets are cut. They don't have a public constituency because they mostly operate in the background and aren't sexy or easy to understand.

So true. I work in surveillance (animal health - zoonoses). When we don't find anything, no-one notices us and they try to take our funding. When we do find something, people complain because we looked and found something 'inconvenient', or because we didn't find it soon enough (after they took our funding away...)

You just can't win in Surveillance.

Especially animal surveillance, where there's even less money than in people, and there's no guarantee that sick animals will even be noticed let alone receive medical attention/testing.

By attack rate (not verified) on 13 Feb 2009 #permalink

This is an issue discussed heavily in my current graduate classes. Unfortunately, there is much legal red tape that complicates the relationship between the private labs and this company. One suggestion could be that it of legal obligation/ "the right thing to do" would be perhaps have these private labs report to an agency when a positive sample is found. This could trigger an impromptu inspection, however, I do not know enough to know if this could or would fly. The fact of the matter is that there needs to be more accountability, and it should not be an obligation to conduct business with integrity. It's not like I'm saying these companies needs to reach for the moon here, it's just common sense. Get your head out of your asses, Mr. CEOs!

There is no authority given to the FDA basically because authority is granted when the money is there. The money is never consistently there. So downgrading and consolidating of roles and responsibility seems to be an annual cycle to go through in any public health agency. Prevention is key. The FDA obviously needs to be revamped. The FDA gets a bad rap, but it's because the funds are not granted, they are spread way too thin, and have too much responsibility, and then when something bad like this happens, the media and the public are quick to judge and jump on the government agency that neglected to "catch this in time". This does not justify the lack-luster approach from these inspectors at all, but it's easy to sympathize with these professionals after working with the same. Weary, over-worked and underpaid.

The whole story is not presented in the media and it's easy just to write public health agencies off...this makes me worried when it comes to some ignorant representatives in Washington that are given the right to vote "yea or nay" on future funding initiatives. They are almost just as (or more) clueless as the people they represent!

Of course, I'm preaching to the choir, but it's feels good to at least rant. ha.

By Strive4Change (not verified) on 13 Feb 2009 #permalink

S4C: I'm not sure the FDA should be left off so easily. The Bush FDA was an outlier. It had no less authority. Authority doesn't follow the money. It is usually a prerequisite for it. Even when authority exists it doesn't mean it will be used or laws enforced and in the Bush FDA whatever authority there was wasn't used. But the food safety laws are inadequate. I don't have an opinion about whether the positive test reporting should be by the company or the lab (either are legal; it is the lab that reports to cancer registries in most places). But feel free to rant. We do.

revere: I see your point and I do agree that food safety laws are inadequate and vague, in turn opening these so-called "laws" up to debate and personal opinion/preference. However, in order for authority to be granted/established, I can't help but think that money (and time) is definitely needed to be invested in order for change to occur....unless some of this bail-out money is put forth this effort, I doubt things will change. Obviously congress can legislate all they way, but if there is nothing of substance to back it up (funding), it's all a waste of time and they are just creating a false sense of security. The typical smoke n' mirrors effect...gets 'em every time.

By Strive4Change (not verified) on 13 Feb 2009 #permalink

Following this outbreak and the last in peanut butter, I have to wonder at the designation of peanut butter as a high risk food. From the reports is seems like the peanut product producing plants are high risk to contaminate anything they're producing. The food itself seems pretty safe, given all of the sanitation violations at the plants. I'd think if peanut butter were high risk, we'd be seeing a whole lot more cases.

Declaring peanut butter high risk is merely more security theater - it doesn't address the problems of known and repeatedly unaddressed problems in the plants.