National Consumers League

Contaminated peanut butter? Is nothing sacred?


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by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

The all American sandwich, peanut butter and jelly, defiled by the potentially deadly Salmonella pathogen?

More than 500 people in 43 states have been sickened, and eight have died, after eating crackers and other products made with peanut butter from  a plant owned by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). More than 100 children under the age of 5 are among those who have been sickened.

The good news for consumers is that none of PCA’s products are sold directly to consumers. 
The bad news is that apparently PCA distributed potentially contaminated products to more than 100 companies for use as an ingredient in hundreds of different products, such as cookies, crackers, cereal, candy and ice cream.
 The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initiated an inspection of PCA’s Blakely plant on January 9 shortly after learning that the firm might be linked to the ongoing Salmonella outbreak that was making people sick in states across the country.  But what should outrage consumers is that isn’t the first time the PCA has been implicated  – far from it. According to the New York Times, over the last two years  there were 12 instances in which the company’s own tests of its product found contamination by salmonella. In each case, the report states, “after the firm retested the product and received a negative status, the product was shipped in interstate commerce.”

It is illegal for a company to continue testing a product until it gets a clean test, said Michael Taylor, a food safety expert at George Washington University.

The FDA’s report describes a plant that was poorly constructed, with gaps and holes in the walls and flaking rust that could get into food products. “There were open gaps observed” near air-conditioner intakes that were as large as a half-inch by two and one-half feet long, the report said.  Previous inspections of the plant by the Georgia State Agriculture Department found dirty surfaces, grease residue and dirt buildup throughout the plant. They also found rust residue that could flake into food, gaps in warehouse doors large enough for rodents to enter, and numerous other problems. Ingesting foods containing the Salmonella virus can be deadly in the very young, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. The plant sells its peanut paste to some of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, including Kellogg and McKee Foods. As a result of the contamination, more than 100 products have been recalled, mostly cookies and crackers.

In a press conference Tuesday, Michael Rogers, director of the division of field investigations at the FDA, said that the company’s tests showing salmonella contamination should have led the company to take actions to eliminate the contamination. “It’s significant, because at the point at which salmonella was identified, it shouldn’t be there, based on the manufacturing process that’s designed to mitigate salmonella, actually eliminate it,” Mr. Rogers said.

But the firm took no steps to clean its plant after the test results alerted the company to the contamination, inspection team found problems with the plant’s routine cleaning procedures as well.

The plant also stored pallets of peanut butter next to supplies of peanuts, the inspection report says. Finished products should be stored far from raw materials to reduce the chances of re-contamination of the finished goods, according to federal rules.

What is wrong with this picture? This Georgia plant is a clearly a serial violator– the feds found numerous violations but so did the state of Georgia. Why wasn’t the plant closed down after the Georgia State Inspection? Restaurants that are dirty and violate municipal rules are routinely closed down until they fix safety violations. What is the point of federal and state safety procedures if a company is permitted to flout them and send contaminated products into the marketplace? and shouldn’t we have tough criminal penalties for a company that knowingly ships contaminated products?

Certainly, Congress will be demanding answers, but consumers should demand them as well. Our food safety regime is broken. President Obama needs to appoint a tough new FDA Commissioner immediately. But the job of the FDA is overwhelming; FDA regulates food, drugs, and medical devices. We agree with our friends at the Center for Science in the Public Interest – our food safety system needs to be overhauled.

We need legislation to bring the food safety program at the FDA and Department of Agriculture and all the other federal agencies that regulate food into the 21st century. Representative Rosa DeLauro has introduced legislation to create a new Food Safety Administration at Health and Human Services.  That approach would bring the program elements together and put an expert in charge. We ask Congress and the Obama Administration to pass this legislation quickly, and begin to overhaul our food safety regime and make it work for consumers.