Peanut Recall Sparks Large-Scale Food Safety Concerns

March 11, 2009

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Spurred by a deadly salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia peanut processing plant early this year, attention is again being called to food safety practices.

"The effects of the widespread peanut butter recall could cost rural America's peanut producers $1 billion in lost production and sales," the Associated Press reports based on testimony to be heard later today at a House subcommittee hearing.

Yet the effects of the peanut butter recall are widespread.

The recall started on Jan. 13 when the salmonella outbreak was linked to products from the Peanut Corporation of America, which filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last month. The company had supplied peanut butter for institutions and food companies, but its peanut-paste products were ingredients in hundreds of other goods, including for industrial use in products such as cakes, ice cream and dog biscuits — so the recall has kept expanding. Companies have recalled thousands of products containing Peanut Corp.'s peanut paste, marking one of the largest recalls in U.S. history.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced at the end of January that it had begun a criminal investigation into the company's actions.

The recall once again opens a window into not only the complexity of the nation's food system but also adherence to food safety practices.

Concerned about a salmonella outbreak involving peanut products, President Barack Obama has himself weighed in on the issue, saying he wants to review how the FDA operates. "I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to," President Obama said in an interview aired earlier this month on NBC's Today show.

According to the New York Times last week, a private inspector was given less than a day to inspect the Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Blakely, Ga., which processes several million pounds of peanuts a month.

An FDA inspection team that visited the plant in January discovered that on 12 occasions in 2007 and 2008, tests conducted by the company found salmonella contamination in its products — but that it shipped the contaminated products to customers after a retest found no contamination and did nothing to clean the plant. The federal inspection concluded that the plant, which is now closed, should not have been allowed to make peanut butter at all because it did not adequately separate raw and finished products, among other problems.

"With government inspectors overwhelmed by the task of guarding the nation's food supply, the job of monitoring food plants has in large part fallen to an army of private auditors," says the New York Times. "Audits are not required by the government, but food companies are increasingly requiring suppliers to undergo them as a way to ensure safety and minimize liability. The rigor of audits varies widely and many companies choose the cheapest ones, which cost as little as $1,000, in contrast to the $8,000 the FDA spends to inspect a plant."

Hundreds have been sickened from the deadly salmonella outbreak, and the bacteria was linked to as many as nine deaths. Yet the true cost will not be known until the outbreak is over and the recall complete.

What is becoming increasingly clearer is that the recall has hurt a number of businesses of all sizes since the initial outbreak.

Don Koehler, head of the Georgia Peanut Commission, however, told the Associated Press that the recall goes far beyond the source of the outbreak, and that the companies that used its peanut butter and peanut paste in their products have had to remove their products from the marketplace.

According to new sales numbers reported by the Associated Press, the nation's consumers remain worried about the widespread salmonella outbreak and thus continue to shy away from peanut butter. In the four-week period ended Feb. 21, Americans bought 41.8 million pounds of jarred peanut butter — 13.3 percent less than in the same period the previous year, research firm Nielsen reported yesterday. The period's sales were the lowest of any in the three years Nielsen has tracked the U.S. food, drug and mass merchandisers segment.

Consumers' reluctance to buy peanut butter is hurting manufacturers like J.M. Smucker Co., the nation's largest jams and jellies maker and maker of the Jif peanut butter brand. Executives said last month that they were seeing weakness in Jif sales because of the outbreak, even though Jif was not affected.

Big food companies were not the only ones troubled by the peanut recall. In fact, lacking the resources of big companies, small businesses have a particularly difficult time dealing with the recall's impact.

"Farmers, as small businesses, have felt the real economic impact of this recall," Koehler was set to tell the Small Business Committee's Regulations and Health Care Subcommittee. "Because farmers do business with other small businesses who supply them their inputs, the ripple will not likely stop at the farmer."

"[N]ow, in dealing with the recall, they are at a continued disadvantage," the New York Times says. "While big companies [...] have the experience and staff to handle recalls, many small businesses have never had to deal with anything like this."

As such, some small businesses have had to have employees working overtime or have had to hire additional help to handle recall-related work, such as identifying and tracking products through documents and manufacturing replacement products.

Food safety experts say that the lesson to small businesses in all this is that they need to know their ingredients and the risks, and know what to ask of suppliers.


Peanut Butter and other Peanut Containing Products Recall List U.S. Food and Drug Administration (info. current as of March 10, 2009)

Salmonella Recall Could Cost Peanut Producers $1B by Emily Fredrix The Associated Press, March 11, 2009

Food Problems Elude Private Inspectors by Michael Moss and Andrew Martin The New York Times, March 5, 2009

FDA Inspection of Peanut Corporation, Jan. 9, 2009

Peanut Butter Sales Suffer Amid Salmonella Fears The Associated Press, March 11, 2009

Peanut Recall's Ripples Feel like a Tidal Wave for Some Companies by Karla Cook The New York Times, Feb. 25, 2009

Peanut Case Shows Holes in Safety Net by Michael Moss The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2009

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