by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Peanut-butter

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

Chewing the fat on peanut butter

My latest Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle…

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?

Feb 13 2009

Clever move: Peanut Corp goes bankrupt

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.

Feb 9 2009

The never-ending peanut butter scandal continues

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!

Feb 6 2009

CDC on the peanut butter outbreak

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.

Feb 5 2009

Peanut butter update: widgets! chicken! FEMA kits! Congress!

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.

Feb 2 2009

Hope for the FDA at last: Sasha eats peanut butter!

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!