Updates From the Tainted-Peanut Front

The Food and Drug Administration has issued "guidance" advising makers of peanut products on how to avoid salmonella contamination. The advice boils down to this: Be careful not to allow salmonella into your products.

Manufacturers "should obtain product only from suppliers with a validated process in place to adequately reduce the presence of salmonella," says the FDA. And a manufacturer that nevertheless somehow ends up buying a batch of poisoned peanuts needs "a process of its own to reduce the presence of Salmonella."

So, don't buy poisoned products. But if you do, make sure you remove the poison before selling the products to the public. Check.

Bill Marler, the ubiquitous tainted-food lawyer and blogger, added a bit of snark to the Google News page linking to a Reuters article about the guidelines. "Right at the beginning," he wrote, "the FDA explains why the guidance document has no real meaning." He's referring to the FDA's advisory that such documents "do not establish enforceable responsibilities."

"Boy, that sure is helpful," Marler observed.

The FDA didn't mention rodents or their droppings, though some of the agency's inspectors were reportedly "disgusted" when they learned last month that the Texas plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America—the company whose Georgia plant was the source of the salmonella outbreak—was rife with both. Dead mice and droppings were found all over the plant.

The death toll of the outbreak is up to 677. So far, more than 2,800 products have been pulled from shelves.

Jarred peanut butter has never been implicated in the outbreak, but sales are still way down, despite Herculean marketing efforts by the likes of J.M. Smucker (which makes Jif), Unilever (Skippy), and ConAgra (Peter Pan).

Sales were down 13.3 percent in the four weeks ending Feb. 21 compared with the same period last year, according to Nielsen.

Meanwhile, the FDA is asking the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the Agriculture Department, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help in devising ways to speed up the detection of outbreaks of foodborne diseases.

In the two worst recent outbreaks—peanut butter and, last summer, salmonella-tainted peppers—investigators, as usual, fumbled about for weeks trying to find the source of the problem.

The goal is to reduce the length of such investigations to a few days. The other agencies, according to the FDA, have indicated a willingness to help. According to the AP, Homeland Security "has responsibility for combatting bioterrorism." And "the Pentagon is skilled at evaluating all kinds of technology."