Currently browsing posts about: Peanut-butter

Feb 21 2013

Grand jury indicts Peanut Corporation of America officials

The wheels of justice really do grind slow, but they sometimes do grind.  A federal grand jury has indicted four officials of the Peanut Butter Corporation of America for “conspiracy, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and others offenses related to contaminated or misbranded food.”

Translation: Salmonella that sickened more than 500 people and killed at least 8.

The documents in the case have just been unsealed:

I’ve been following this particular food safety tragedy for several years now.  The offenses were so egregious—officials blatantly ignored positive tests for Salmonella, for example—that some kind of punishment seemed warranted.

According to the account in USA Today:

The indictment alleges that PCA officials affirmatively lied to their customers about the presence of salmonella in PCA’s products,” said Stuart Delery, principal deputy assistant attorney general.

Delery also said some officials at PCA, no longer in business, fabricated lab results certifying to customers that the products were salmonella free “even when tests showed the presence of salmonella or when no tests had been done at all.”

As lawyer Bill Marler writes,

These indictments will have a far reaching impact on the food industry.  Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters the stream of commerce.  Felony counts like this one are rare, but misdemeanor charges that can include fines AND jail time can and should happen.

Is this a sign that courts might be taking food safety problems more seriously?  If so, it’s about time.

Addition, February 22:  Food Safety News has a handy timeline of the Peanut Corporation events.

Sep 3 2010

The Plumpy’nut furor: International food politics in action

The New York Times Magazine has a long article this week about Plumpy’nut,  the peanut butter-based product designed to feed malnourished kids in emergency situations.  The product is made and patented by Nutriset, a French company.

You might think that a food product aimed at saving the lives of starving kids would be uncontroversial, but not when patents are involved.  Nutriset holds intellectual property rights to this product and defends them to the hilt.   The company extends its patent to line extensions of the product, as well.

Patents mean that people in developing countries who want to produce their own product based on local ingredients can’t do it.  It also means that anyone making the product has to follow the formula, even if ingredients are expensive and not locally available.

In September 2007, I wrote about Plumpy’nut, describing how peanut butter had become the basis of a “ready-to-use therapeutic food” (RUTF) for aiding recovery of severely malnourished children in Africa.

The study itself is published in Maternal and Child Nutrition and the authors make the point that people administering this RUTF do not need to be medically trained so this therapy can be used at home. I’m always amazed when researchers discover that feeding malnourished children helps them to recover. Peanut butter is highly concentrated in calories and the investigators mixed in some vitamins along with it, so I guess it can be considered a superfood.

Since then, much has been written about the controversy over this product, particularly about its formula, cost, and sustainability.

Its formula includes:

  • Peanut Butter
  • Dry Skim Milk
  • Vegetable oil
  • Powdered sugar
  • Minerals & vitamins

It contains about 500 calories in a 92-gram foil package.

Of these calories, one-quarter to one-third are from the added sugar.  No wonder kids like it!

What about its cost? A recent article about local production of Plumpy’ nut in Niger illustrates this particular problem.

UNICEF pays US$60 to purchase and ship a box of 150 packets from the main producer and patent holder of Plumpy’nut, Nutriset, in France. It costs $65 in Niger. The difference adds up to an extra $15,000 for the 3,000 boxes purchased in Niamey every week.

“The luxury of having no production delays and not fully depending on an external provider is a price we are willing to pay,” UNICEF’s nutrition manager, Eric-Alain Ategbo, told IRIN. Ategbo said it took at least eight weeks for the nutritious peanut butter-like paste to arrive from France.

Here are some other cost concerns:

Electricity is expensive, taxes are high and money is expensive as interest rates are high. It would be cheaper if the products we use were bought locally, but they are not available.  Peanuts are the only ingredient from Niger. Others, such as milk, sugar and oil, are purchased internationally. We also have the obligation to buy specific products [such as micronutrients and packaging] from Nutriset in order to respect the formula.

As for its sustainability:

  • Who is going to pay for these products?  And for how long?
  • Does it make sense to promote a peanut-based product in countries that do not grow peanuts?
  • Is it a good idea to give packaged, sweetened products to kids whose families cannot continue to provide such things once the crisis is over?
  • Is it a good idea to give kids the idea that sweet things in packages are what they supposed to eat?
  • Will products like this pave the way for other sweetened products in packages—soft drinks, for example?

These are all complicated issues.  Read the article and ponder.

Apr 3 2009

Can food products be traced? Not easily.

In 2005, the FDA required certain categories of manufacturers to keep records about the source, transporters, and recipients of their products.  Recently, the Inspector General of the FDA’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, conducted an exercise to see whether traceability was working.  Inspectors bought 4 samples of 10 different food products (e.g., bottled water, oatmeal, tomatoes) at retail stores and attempted to track their supply chains.  Oops.  It only could trace 5.  For another 31, it could make educated guesses.  But nearly 60% of food facilities handling these products could not complete the tracing and 25% did not know they were supposed to.

The FDA, says the Inspector General, needs statutory authority to require producers to know their supply chains and everybody involved needs some education about how to do this.  No wonder we are still getting daily recalls of products containing peanut better.  Statutory authority means Congress.  I wish Congress would get busy on this!

Apr 2 2009

Pistachio recalls: what they mean

The interesting part about this latest recall – now 2 million pounds and involving 74 products so far – is how the Salmonella contamination was discovered.  According to a lengthy account in USA Today, a small nut company in Illinois, Georgia’s Nut, routinely tests for Salmonella and found the bacteria in nuts purchased from Setton Pistachio of California.  Georgia’s Nut recalled products distributed in the Chicago area.  This company also produces a trail mix for Kraft Foods.  It notified Kraft Foods, which also promptly recalled its products.

I’m guessing that Georgia Nut must follow a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) plan.  HACCP is a science-based food safety procedure that requires analyzing where contamination might occur in production processes (hazard analysis), taking steps to prevent contamination at those critical control points, and using pathogen testing to make sure the steps were followed and the plan is working.

HACCP, as I keep complaining, is only required for meat and poultry production on the USDA regulatory side (where is it poorly enforced) and for sprouts, fresh juices, seafood, and eggs on the FDA side.  The producers of everything else are supposed to follow Good Manufacturing Processes, which are considerably less rigorous and, as we saw with the peanut butter recalls (more than 3,800 products from 200 companies) and their health consequences (nearly 700 sick, at least 9 deaths), clearly do not work.

How about HACCP for all foods?  Worth a try?

April 3 update: USA Today reports that Setton Pistachio has not yet issued its own recall (note: this is a good reason why the FDA needs the authority to order recalls), that its California plant passed recent inspections with relatively minor violations, but that its sister plant on Long Island is a mess.  USA Today also reports that Setton Pistachio has had positive tests for Salmonella for months.  What did the company do with the contaminated pistachios?  A mystery.

Mar 10 2009

How expensive are the peanut butter recalls?

Bill Marler, the lawyer whose specialty is helping clients obtain compensation for food poisonings, knows as much about food safety – or the lack thereof – as anyone I know.  He estimates the total cost of the peanut butter recalls as close to $1 billion.  This accounts for the costs of the recalls themselves ($75 million to Kellogg alone), as well as the costs of lost sales, advertising and public relations, and stock prices.  And that’s just to the companies.  Perhaps he will do another estimate for the 677 people (as of March 1) who are known to have become ill as a result.

In the meantime, the fact that Peanut Corporation of America filed for bankruptcy is unlikely to affect victims’ ability to collect damages.  Much of those costs will be covered by insurance.

I guess food companies think it’s cheaper to do things this way than to produce safe food in the first place.  That, of course, is why we need better federal oversight, and the sooner the better.

Guidance alert, just in: the FDA has issued after-the-fact advice to the industry about how to produce peanuts safely.

Update March 12: Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru, polled readers about the recalls.  All knew about them and most were not buying recalled products.  But 45% said they had stopped buying peanut butter, even though regular peanut butter was not involved in the recalls.

Mar 6 2009

Without honest inspections, we won’t have safe food

As we have learned all too often, dishonest food companies cut corners on food safety any time they can get away with it.  That is why inspections are absolutely necessary.  Right now, the inspection system is largely voluntary and all too easily corrupted.  In a series of articles in the New York Times, we now learn that some of the peanut butter caught up in the recent recalls was Certified Organic, and that the plants had passed inspection by USDA-licensed organic certifiers.

As for conventional foods: today’s front-page article expands on flaws in the food inspection system.  Inspectors, for example, are paid by the plants they are inspecting (oops).  Here’s my favorite quote, attributed to Mansour Samadpour, a food safety consultant: “The contributions of third-party audits to foods safety is the same as the contribution of diploma mills to education.”

When I was doing the research for my book, Safe Food, I visited a plant that manufactured meat products.  The plant manager told me that you could butcher a dog in front of the onsite USDA inspector and he would never see it.  I believed him: inspectors only see problems if they know what to look for.

All of this makes me think that inspections need to be done by independent agencies that are rewarded for finding problems, not ignoring them.  Mandatory HACCP (standard food safety procedures) with testing and inspection would help too.   And if the organic food industry wants the public to believe that organic foods are better, it must make sure that production methods meet organic standards in letter and spirit.  Otherwise, why bother to pay more for organic foods?

The USDA needs to close loopholes and insist on the integrity of the inspection system. The FDA needs to figure out a way to get its inspection needs under control.  These are issues for Congress to handle.  I keep wondering:  How bad do things have to get before Congress does something useful about food safety?

Feb 21 2009
Feb 18 2009

Peanut butter recalls: the Harvard Survey

Some group at Harvard does telephone surveys of consumer attitudes and did one about the recallsNews accounts say that nearly all of the more than 1,000 respondents had heard about the recalls, but about a quarter of them erroneously thought that national brands of peanut butter in jars had been recalled.  Companies that put peanut butter in jars must do their own roasting, which is why they are announcing their safety in ads and on websites.   Consumers, the survey found, were not aware of the range of products affected.  How could they be?  I get announcements of newly recalled products every day and the total now exceeds 2,000. The take-home lesson?  Until we have a decent food safety system in place, avoid mass-produced foods with multiple ingredients (especially if you don’t know what they are or where they came from), buy local, and consider cooking – it solves a lot of safety problems.  Other ideas?

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