PB and Salmonella: The Latest Sandwich

When I walk into attorney Bill Marler’s downtown Seatttle office that overlooks the Puget Sound, it’s not just the view that I’m taken with: it’s Marler’s computer screen, which has a browser window open to the Web site of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which he checks vigilantly throughout our interview. These days, Marler, who has been representing victims of foodborne illness since 1993, is consumed by the nation’s latest food scare, Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.

Since late August, 488 people in 43 states have been infected with Salmonella Typhimurium, and the common link is peanut butter and peanut paste from a processing plant in Blakely, Ga., owned by Peanut Corporation of America. The outbreak may have contributed to six deaths.

Peanut paste is the stuff that food manufacturers use to flavor a plethora of processed foods, peanut butter-cheez snack crackers among them. Although the paste is not sold directly to consumers, it figures into so many snack foods that are sold and marketed to….well, you get the picture.

I took a minute to think about all the supermarket markets that contain peanut butter, and I was blown away. Ice cream. Cookies. Candy bars, including everyone’s favorite, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Cereal. Little Debbie snacks. Energy bars. Bottled satay sauce. Even dog treats.

“Ubiquitous” was how Marler characterized this outbreak, which is showing no signs of slowing down. On Tuesday, the FDA’s tally of peanut butter-salmonella infections stood at 485; by Thursday afternoon, that number had risen to 488. The outbreak has also prompted massive product recalls, amounting to 31 million pounds of peanut butter and peanut paste, as of yesterday.

So far, the unscathed piece of this contaminated equation is jarred peanut butter. To date, the FDA has said that “there is no indication that major national name brand jars of peanut butter sold in retail stores are linked to bulk supplies of peanut butter and peanut paste recalled for fear of possible contamination.”

But Marler is suggesting that we take a temporary time out from our beloved PB.

“There is no evidence to suggest that all peanut butter is contaminated, but there’s also no evidence to suggest that it isn’t,” he told me yesterday. “People are still getting sick and this is a situation that’s still in flux. Every 30 minutes it seems that the FDA has an update on its Web site with regards to product recalls and its investigation. I’m saying, don’t throw out your peanut butter, but it wouldn’t hurt to wait a week for more information.”

So hang tight, PB fans. I’ll keep you posted in this space as I receive updates, particularly when Marler gives the green light to make your next PB&J. P.S.: His very lively blog is a must-read for food safety wonks.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 23, 2009; 8:43 AM ET Food Politics
Previous: Kim's "20" | Next: Meatless Monday: First-Rate Falafel

Comments

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I'm still using my jar of JIF PB. I'm just waiting for the fingerpointing to commence. A coworker and I have already debated as to wether the government should conduct more oversight or if the companies themselves should conduct better quality control.

Posted by: justhere | January 23, 2009 8:59 AM

Thanks for the info Kim! I really enjoyed your "20" yesterday...working on coming up with my own list. :)

Posted by: earlysun | January 23, 2009 9:08 AM

What I'm curious about is how did peanut butter or peanut paste get contaminated with salmonella to begin with? I thought salmonella came from poultry feces. I see the connection with eggs, but peanut butter? Can someone connect the dots?

Posted by: janedoe5 | January 23, 2009 9:25 AM

What an idiot. How many people have died from this? It's hardly a crisis. Grow up.

Posted by: gm123 | January 23, 2009 9:56 AM

The CDC says that salmonella also lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. So, contaminiation can come from a worker who didn't wash his/her hands after using the bathroom. Here's a link to the CDC page on Salmonella:

http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/dfbmd/disease_listing/salmonellosis_gi.html#6

Posted by: ME2007 | January 23, 2009 11:10 AM

Six people died who should not have. For how the Peanut Butter and Paste became contaminated, here is a great article:

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=salmonella-poisoning-peanut-butter

Posted by: BillMarler | January 23, 2009 11:54 AM

gm123:
I guess six people dying isn't a big deal, unless it was your relative or you yourself. A Salmonella infection is not a walk in the park.I think it is a big deal. People rely on food being safe. Companies have an obligation to provide us with safe food. Yes, we need to do what we can to avoid infections, like properly handling and cooking meat. But really, what is the "proper" way to handle a peanut-butter cracker so as to not get sick from it? There isn't as it is eaten as is, from the package. The consumer has no way to protect oneself.

I have an acquaintance whose toddler nearly died from an e.coli infection from the bad spinach episode. The child will be affected for life and will probably need a kidney transplant one day.

So telling people to just grow up is juvenile and offensive. Please stop.

Posted by: khachiya1 | January 23, 2009 12:54 PM

khachiya1: I agree - if gm123 doesn't think there is something wrong with this picture (uh, salmonella in peanut butter?!?) and/or with the US food system in general, s/he should get real. And calling someone an idiot isn't what I'd consider "grownup" language.

Posted by: brooklynfarmhouse | January 23, 2009 2:08 PM

In an attempt to look out for a company that employs lots of folks in my hometown, I'd like to clarify that although
Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are a "supermarket product that contains peanut butter," the Hershey Company has issued a press release that says ...
No products made by The Hershey Company, including items and brands in the iconic Reese's franchise, are affected by the recent recall related to peanut butter. Hershey does not purchase any peanut butter, peanuts or peanut products from the Peanut Corporation of America. Peanut butter for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups is made in Hershey facilities under the most stringent safety and quality standards...
(http://www.hersheys.com/recall/peanutbutter.asp)

Posted by: TriciaGray | January 23, 2009 2:44 PM

this is what happens when food companies become far too big for their and our own good. smaller companies do more regional business and do not dominate the marketplace. what difference does this make? well, first of all smaller more regionally based companies would be easier to monitor and even if there were to be an outbreak their products would be easier trace and outbreaks such this one would be much easier to contain. the super corporations with their legions of high powered attorneys attempt to block every effort by the USDA and the FDA to monitor their cleanliness. therefore there has been a trend towards much less accountability where the rights of consumers are concerned. eventually an outbreak of near catastrophic proportions will the only way that the govt. will ever regain control of the food industry. who will be the victims?

Posted by: wa_idaho_lonewolf | January 23, 2009 4:21 PM

Nearly 200 products have now been recalled. Nearly 500 people have been sickened, 108 hospitalized and seven have died. 31,000,000 pounds of peanut butter is being recalled. The employees at Peanut Corporation of America have been let go. So, why not focus on food safety?

Posted by: BillMarler | January 23, 2009 11:32 PM

This is what happens when deregulation is taken too far. Somebody said the government should do more to watch out for this kind of thing. Well, then, you have to be willing to pay for the training and continued employment of knowledgable food safety inspectors. Anybody who thinks the companies are going to police themselves has another think coming.

Posted by: margaret6 | January 26, 2009 9:09 AM

This is what happens when deregulation is taken too far. Someone said the government should step up inspections. Well, then, the taxpayers need to be committed to paying for the training and continued employment of qualified food inspectors. Anybody who thinks the food companies are going to do the right thing on their own needs to think again.

Posted by: margaret6 | January 26, 2009 10:23 AM

This is just shameful. I read another article—http://www.newsinferno.com/archives/4643#more-4643—that discussed how PCA received 12 positive tests for salmonella but never issued a recall and never did anything to prevent illness in consumers.

Posted by: Cynthia111 | January 29, 2009 7:07 PM

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