March 10, 2009
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued safety guidelines for companies that use peanut products on Tuesday and said it may seize products that test positive for salmonella bacteria.
While heat-sensitive, salmonella bacteria become heat-resistant in high-fat environments such as peanut butter, the FDA guidance advises.
The document provides advice directly relevant to a food poisoning outbreak that has renewed calls for a revamp of food safety protocols in the United States.
The government says 677 people in 45 states have been sickened in the outbreak linked to foods that used peanut ingredients made by the now-bankrupt Peanut Corp of America.
The outbreak continues to affect hundreds of the company's customers and has forced the recall of 3,235 products.
Improperly roasted peanuts used to make peanut butter or peanut paste could harbor salmonella bacteria. When used in a product like ice cream, the bacteria would be protected in a cozy clump or swirl of fat, according to the FDA.
Baking peanut butter into cookies and crackers might not be enough to kill bacteria if the temperature is too low or is not maintained at a consistent level.
Because of this, the FDA urged food manufacturers to buy peanut products "only from suppliers with validated processes in place to adequately reduce the presence of Salmonella species."
And it urged companies to conduct scientific studies to check for salmonella in the products they make.
Bill Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer who is representing 85 clients who got sick from eating tainted food, said the recommendations are just common sense for any manufacturer that uses outside suppliers.
"What the FDA does in this suggestion memo is to say make sure you are buying your parts from reputable people who have a plan," Marler said in a telephone interview.
"These are all great ideas and all things that the industry should have known. Some did know. Some practiced it, but clearly a lot of people weren't paying attention."
Marler said he has filed six lawsuits in federal court against Peanut Corp; its owner, Stewart Parnell; and Kellogg Co (K.N), which used some of the recalled peanuts as ingredients.
Peanut Corp had a $12 million insurance policy for personal injury liability, he said, but that will not be enough to cover the claims of people filing personal injury and wrongful death cases.
He said the company also had a recall insurance policy worth about $7 million. Otherwise, the company was about $400,000 in debt.
Marler also has filed lawsuits against Kellogg and Ohio-based food distributor King Nut Cos individually, and said he plans to file more by the end of the week.
Kellogg and King Nut executives were not immediately available for comment.
Bob Gravani, a professor of food science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, said many companies hire outside inspectors to ensure that the ingredients they buy are safe, but it may be time to take a second look at this.
"They took the inspection reports at face value. Companies should be double-checking to see that these audits are done," Gravani said.