Some group at Harvard does telephone surveys of consumer attitudes and did one about the recalls. News 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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The peanut butter story gets more sordid by the minute. Peanut Corporation of America, owner of the Georgia plant that shipped peanut butter laced with Salmonella, has gone belly up. By filing for bankruptcy, it gets to avoid claims and class action suits related to the illnesses and deaths caused by the tainted peanut butter. Check out what Consumers Union has to say about this ploy.
The New York Times today has a long investigative report on its front page about the implications of the peanut butter recalls for food safety in America. It’s a terrific article and it’s wonderful that the Times has at last discovered that the U.S. food safety system is deeply dysfunctional, something the Government Accountability Office has been screaming about for years.
In the meantime, the list of company recalls keeps getting longer (the FDA website identifies them with a bright red NEW! Safe Tables Our Priority, a group devoted to protecting children from unsafe food, publishes a daily list of individually recalled peanut butter products. Today’s collection alone numbers nearly 40 and is well worth a look. So are the CDC’s cute reminders to throw out your recalled products.
And I can’t resist adding a comment on peanut politics. The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Integrity in Science Watch sends out daily feeds. Today’s (not yet posted) refers to a story in the Atlanta Journal Constitution revealing that the USDA, not the FDA, is responsible for the safety of exported peanuts (they might contain aflatoxin), that its Peanut Standards Board was exempted from conflict -of-interest rules by the 2002 Farm Bill, and that the head of Peanut Corporation of America, the company responsible for the tainted peanut butter, was appointed in October as a member of that Board until 2011.
What more evidence do we need that an overhaul of the food safety system is very much in order. Congress: this is your problem to solve! Citizens: write your congressional representatives!
The CDC has just published its latest MMWR (Morbitity and Mortality Weekly Report) on the epidemiology of the peanut butter outbreak. The good news: the number of cases seems to be going down. Take a look at the charts. The epidemic peaked from mid-November to mid-December but the peak in reporting the cases came a month later. That’s why yesterday’s congressional hearing had so much to say about the need for FDA and CDC to work together to speed up the reporting ( or so reporters tell me). And, thankfully, about the need to give FDA recall authority.
I have a hard time keeping up with the number of products recalled because they contain potentially tainted peanut butter. So does the FDA. It now offers a widget that you can load on your computer to receive automatic updates on the recalls. Here’s what the widget looks like:
The recall that I find most surprising comes from the Hain Celestial group, which just called back nearly 900,000 pounds (!) of frozen chicken products because they contain peanut butter produced at the Georgia plant that caused all the problems. Frozen chicken satay? Why is peanut butter in chicken?
And now FEMA is recalling its emergency disaster rations because they might contain tainted peanut butter.
The 1100 products recalled to date are fast approaching the record number of pet foods recalled in 2007. That, no doubt, is why Congresswoman Rosa deLauro (Dem-CT) has just introduced legislation – “The Food Safety Modernization Act” – to separate off food from FDA oversight and create a separate agency to regulate the safety of the food supply. As she puts it, this is the final wake-up call. Let’s hope.
Not only do we have one food supply that serves people, animals, and pets, but that food supply is incredibly interlocked. If one food causes problems, you can bet that there are problems in lots of other places.
Update February 7: The New York Times has produced a video on the recalls.
Thanks to Food Chemical News for telling its readers about the President’s appearance on the NBC Today Show this morning:
Matt Lauer: There’s been a massive peanut butter products recall in this country over the last several weeks, most of the products traced to one plant in Georgia that has a bit of history of sending out products even though there have been traces of Salmonella found. The question…the obvious question people want to know is, “Is the FDA doing its job?”
President Obama: Well, I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to catch. And so we are going to be doing a complete review of FDA operations. At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter. That’s what Sasha eats for lunch, probably three times a week, and you know I don’t want to have to worry about whether she is going to get sick as a consequence of having her lunch.
This leaves me breathless. I’ve been saying for years that the only thing that would ever get Congress moving on the FDA would be if a relative of an important Senator became seriously ill with food poisoning, not something I would wish on anyone. Fingers crossed everyone!
The CDC reports more than 500 cases and 8 deaths from Salmonella typimurium in peanut butter produced at a single plant in Georgia owned by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).
Fortunately, the number of reported cases is going down.FDA officials reveal that the PCA plant has a history of knowingly shipping peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella. But these incidents did not involve the same strain.
The peanut industry says this is one bad peanut and everyone else’s peanuts are OK.
I say (again and again): Peanuts are not kcovered by standard food safety regulations (voluntary Good Manufacturing Practices demonstrably do not work). We need HACCP food safety regulations – with Pathogen Reduction – for all foods, from farm to table.