Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Peanut Butter Gets Uglier

Current stats:  501 reported illnesses and 8 deaths attributed to this outbreak

On Wednesday on up at the capital, senior state and congressional officials called foul on the Peanut Corporation of America, the manufacturer responsible for the recent salmonella debacle.  Specifically, they charge that the PCA knowingly shipped peanut butter contaminated with salmonella multiple times throughout 2007 and 2008.  You can read the FDA report on-line to get all the gritty details about the contaminations, as well as unacceptable plant conditions, but let me hit some highlights for you.

First up is the charge that PCA knowingly shipped products contaminated with salmonella.  Reading over the report, you’ll find one dozen instances from June 2007 through the end of September 2008 where one strain or another of salmonella was discovered.  Troublingly, the write-ups read almost identically: Peanut product manufactured on x date under batch z tested positive for salmonella by a private laboratory.  After the firm retested the product and received a negative status, the product was shipped in interstate commerce.

The private laboratory, as the report spells out, is part of the firm’s own microbiological testing.  Is anyone else concerned by the fact that every single time salmonella was detected during a test, a simple retest found it free and clear of the pathogen?  How about the fact that various strains of salmonella were found at the same plant a dozen times in less than a year and a half?  If we can agree that these weren’t false positives, at least not all of them, what might have contributed to the frequency of salmonella?  The FDA report names several possible culprits, based on their investigations of the plant this month.

  • Failure to properly clean and maintain equipment according to sound manufacturing procedures.  The most egregious example is that after a strain of salmonella was identified on a paste-making line in September of last year, the line had not been cleaned by the time the FDA visited on January 9th, despite the fact that it was still being actively used in production.
  • Raw peanuts were stored next to roasted ones, increasing the likelihood for transmission of pathogens.
  • Peanuts were stored in a cooler growing mold on the ceiling and walls.
  • Water leaks were found around skylights and air conditioning units.
  • Floors may not have been adequately cleaned, as swabs into a crack on the floor tested positive for salmonella.
  • The sink in the peanut butter room was used for cleaning hands and utensils, as well as for washing out mops.
  • Other problems may also have contributed, such as inadequate ventilation, dirty and/or residue-laden equipment, and production materials that could not, because of their construction, be thoroughly cleaned or sanitized.

Simply, this was not an “oopsie.”

This was a doozie.

By the way, remember the recent melamine crisis, in which toxic melamine was being added to animal feed, infant formulas, and milk products to artificially boost protein levels in tests?  According to a report from December 2nd, six infants died and up to 294,000 were sickened as a direct result.  The estimated number of pet deaths is estimated at around 8,000.  The Chinese government has weighed in on two people implicated in spiking foods with melamine.  The punishment for their actions?


Related players have been given other sentences such as life in prison and huge fines.

All of which begs some interesting questions.  To start with, what do you think is a fair and appropriate punishment for those whose actions, whether knowingly or negligently,  compromise the safety of our food supply?  How do we distinguish between negligence and intent, and how should each be addressed?

Finally, what reforms would you like to see to ensure the improved safety of your food?

Food for thought.

UPDATE:  The Peanut Corporation of America has expanded its recall (which was originally everything since July 1, 2008) to include everything they’ve shipped since January 1, 2007.  Of course, this is just due to “an abundance of good caution,” and not the fact that the FDA report detailed slime and mold in the plant.


3 Comments so far

  1. Mangochild January 31st, 2009 4:12 am

    Gack. The difference between negligence and intent is something that plagued me throughout law school since it can be hard to draw the line – and what about intentional negligence? I’m not sure what would be a fair punishment, but I do think that there should be some financial consequence for it, in addition to other punishment – otherwise it is too easy to “repent” and continue with the same practices. Likewise, I am frustrated with the fine, pay, forget it system that seems to prevail for managers and executives of companies and the private labs.

    Along the same lines, I think that there should be a way to make compliance with food safety ideals viable in the business model. I’m not saying that it isn’t, just that it is not perceived to be in the minds of the producers/manufacturers of the large scale. As with the produce scares in the last couple of years, it is too easy to make large amounts of money by mass producing, depleting the soil/not letting it lie farrow or rotating crops, and just pump out as many “heavy producers” as possible to keep the constant supply flowing.

    So maybe part of the incentive to comply should come from the consumer too, as a way to force compliance by not demanding spinach year round, accepting small scale farming, etc. But it doesn’t really address the failure to monitor, huh? With that, I think it is also a matter of placing importance on it by government, including public disclosure as soon as the problem is known, without waiting for the “clean up” that is ordered to happen. Many times the disclosure isn’t revealed, just an order from the agency to change ways. And there it drops. Meh.

    I’m just ranting here, so if this doesn’t make sense, I’m sorry!

  2. Jessica February 1st, 2009 8:33 am

    This is nauseating. I think I’m off peanut butter for awhile. And slime and mold. I’m definitely not eating those for at least a week.

  3. [...] when I wrote about how the Peanut Corporation of America was shipping products from its Georgia plant which had tested [...]

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