January 26, 2009
As the list of food suspected of salmonella contamination continues to grow, food safety experts recounting a similar outbreak two years ago are asking why some lessons from the past have not been universally learned.
In February 2007, the industry giant ConAgra Foods of Omaha, Neb., recalled thousands of jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter because tests revealed salmonella contamination. The product had been shipped to all 50 states and 60 foreign countries. The bacterial problem was traced to a ConAgra peanut-processing plant in Sylvester, Ga.
In response, ConAgra remodeled the entire plant, separating the areas for raw peanuts from finished peanut butter and paste, which must remain sterile. With the source so difficult to trace, that was the safest way to assure it didn't happen again, experts said. No ConAgra products are named in the current outbreak.
"They put about $50 million into completely reconstructing the place - new roof, new separation area between the roaster and production lines," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in litigating food poisonings and was invited to ConAgra's headquarters to discuss the outbreak last summer. He settled more than 1,200 salmonella poisoning cases with ConAgra for an undisclosed sum last year.
The redesigned facility is seen as state of the art, a model for others in the industry to follow, though not everyone has, Marler said.
'Guidelines don't work'
The company's actions went far beyond Food and Drug Administration guidelines established after the 2007 outbreak, guidelines critics say do little to assure protection of the food supply or ease the ability to trace the source of contamination. What's more, the FDA has too few inspectors to visit the nation's 65,520 domestic food production facilities more than once a decade on average, critics say.
"Guidelines don't work," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. "Many companies may choose not to implement them."
With the last outbreak only 23 months ago, "You would think the industry would have learned a lesson," said Jean Halloran, director of food safety for Consumer's Union in Yonkers.
The current scare involves another Georgia site, the Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Blakely. Its peanut butter and paste are purchased in bulk containers ranging from 5 to 1,700 pounds, by at least 70 companies nationwide that manufacture hundreds of different products.
Almost 200 products, running a wide gamut from cookies, crackers, ice cream and pet food, have been voluntarily recalled because of possible salmonella contamination. PCA also sells bulk peanut butter to institutions, such as schools, nursing homes and prisons.
Next week, Marler said he will travel to Georgia to photograph PCA's facility, a trip that could clarify whether conditions were like those that led to salmonella contamination at ConAgra two years ago.
On Friday, George Clarke, spokesman for PCA, said the company would not comment on the current outbreak.
"PCA is focusing on the ongoing investigation with the FDA and working with its customers," he said of companies that purchased its peanut butter. "That's the top priority right now."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 25 people in 47 states were sickened two years ago in the salmonella outbreak. No deaths were attributed to the illness. In the current scare, more than 490 people in 43 states have gotten sick and at least seven deaths have been linked to peanut products tainted with Salmonella Typhimurium .
ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs emphasized none of its products is involved in the current scare. The company's peanut butter products, she said, are safe.
"We reached out to our suppliers and through that work we were able to quickly determine that PCA is not a supplier to ConAgra nor is it a supplier to any of our suppliers," she said.
Reacting to outbreaks
As with the makers of other major grocery brands - Jif and Skippy - several manufacturers have posted prominent notices on their Web sites stating they do not purchase from PCA.
Yet consumers are vulnerable, Halloran said, because the FDA - and state health departments - tend to react to outbreaks rather than being proactive through tough enforceable rules. Companies mostly are on their own, expected to follow good manufacturing practices.
The American Peanut Council in Virginia, which represents peanut processors, said in a statement Friday that since the 2007 outbreak, the industry has "redoubled its efforts in reviewing food safety practices."
Those efforts include establishing an expert committee on microbiological contamination to review optimal temperatures for killing bacteria; and a safe food practices course for peanut processors.
Stephen Sunlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition, said government inspectors are vigorously investigating the current outbreak - just as they have probed previous scares.
"We've asked for the company records," he said. "Companies are required to keep records on source ingredients and who they've shipped them to. We've been to the primary purchasers, but it gets to be a fairly complex web," because, in addition to primary purchasers there are secondary and tertiary buyers of food products from a single company.
No one knows yet how salmonella entered PCA's plant. Marler noted the germ can be carried by birds and rodents.
FDA cites progress
The FDA, which oversees the safety of produce and other foods ( the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects meats), cites progress in guarding the nation's food supply, instituting more inspections and issuing a comprehensive food protection plan.
Many food safety advocates say more needs to be done, and some are calling for an overhaul of the federal agency. Some say the FDA commissioner should be a cabinet-level position to ensure food safety is front-and-center among domestic concerns.
A spate of food scares since 2006 have collectively sickened thousands - many of people have died - making the need for change all the more urgent, experts say.
In less than three years, the country has been hit with major E. coli contamination of spinach, lettuce and beef; salmonella has tainted jalapenos and twice tainted peanut butter.
Last month, the FDA issued a progress report indicating it inspected 5,930 domestic food-production establishments during fiscal year 2008.
But an earlier report from the Government Accountability Office, which analyzed the FDA's Food Protection Plan - a manifesto to guard the food supply - noted there are 65,520 domestic food production facilities in the country.
"We would not be surprised to see more salmonella outbreaks," Halloran said.