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Peanut Butter and Salmonella - the latest Sandwich

by Kim O'Donnel, What's Cooking/A Mighty Appetite on

January 23, 2009

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.

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