Experts look for salmonella source in peanut butter
Two different brands of peanut butter have been recalled after a salmonella outbreak was traced to the popular product. Health officials say they're puzzled as to how the peanut butter was contaminated.
St. Paul, Minn. — A salmonella outbreak traced to peanut butter has sickened five Minnesotans since August. The Food and Drug Administration says nationwide, nearly 300 people in 39 states have gotten the infection from peanut butter.
Thursday, ConAgra Foods recalled jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter that have product codes beginning with "2111" on the lid.
Minnesota Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz says the recall should help contain the outbreak in Minnesota. But he says that doesn't mean Minnesota won't see more cases.
"It could be some time yet if people ate it recently where we might have some illnesses yet. But by and large, we hope with these interventions we will have stopped any further illnesses from occurring," says Schultz.
Even though the outbreak began last summer, Schultz says Minnesota had a salmonella case as recently as January. Schultz says that indicates stores and homes might still have contaminated peanut butter.
"The product is being removed from store shelves, and we are advising consumers that if they have this product on the shelf to get rid of it," says Schultz. "Our hope is that at least after today, no one else would be ingesting the products."
The five Minnesotans who were sickened include two children, a young woman and two elderly men.
How the dangerous germ got into the peanut butter was a mystery. But because peanuts are usually heated to high, germ-killing temperatures during the manufacturing process, government and industry officials said the contamination may have been caused by dirty jars or equipment.
"We think we have very strong evidence that this was the brand of peanut butter. Now it goes to the next step of going to the place where the peanut butter was made and focusing in on the testing," said Dr. Mike Lynch, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The suspect peanut butter was produced by ConAgra at its only peanut butter plant, in Sylvester, Ga., federal investigators said.
ConAgra said it is not clear how many jars are affected by the recall. But the plant is the sole producer of the nationally distributed Peter Pan brand, and the recall covers all peanut butter - smooth and chunky alike - produced by the plant from May 2006 until now.
FDA inspectors visited the now shut-down plant Wednesday and Thursday to try to pinpoint where the contamination could have happened. The FDA last inspected the plant in 2005. Testing was also being done on at least some the salmonella victims' peanut butter jars, but investigators said some may have already been discarded.
Salmonella sickens about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and kills about 600. It can cause diarrhea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting.
But most cases of salmonella poisoning are caused by undercooked eggs and chicken. The only known salmonella outbreak in peanut butter - in Australia during the mid-1990s - was blamed on unsanitary plant conditions.
ConAgra spokesman Chris Kircher said the company randomly tests 60 to 80 jars of peanut butter that come off its Sylvester plant's line each day for salmonella and other germs, and "we've had no positive hits on that going back for years." But he said the plant was shut down as a precaution for further investigation.
"We're trying to understand what else we need to do or should be doing," Kircher said.
The outbreak was detected by the CDC and state health agencies when they noticed spikes in the cases of people sickened by an unusual type of salmonella, starting in August. Once peanut butter emerged as a link, the CDC notified the FDA.
Salmonella commonly originates in the feces of birds and animals, and could be introduced at a multitude of stages in the peanut butter-making process. But many safeguards are in place.
While rodents and birds commonly get into peanut storage bins, germs are killed when raw peanuts are roasted. When making peanut butter, the nuts are again heated - above the salmonella-killing temperature of 165 degrees - as they are ground into a paste and mixed with other ingredients before being squirted into jars and quickly sealed.
"The heating process is sufficient to kill salmonella, should it be present," said Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, in the state that produces nearly half of the nation's peanuts.
Experts say the point in the process where salmonella could be introduced and survive would be as the product cools down, is placed in the jars and then sealed. At most plants, those steps take just minutes.
But "there is quite a lot that happens after that heat step ... before it's put in jars. So there's definitely an opportunity for contamination after the roasting," the FDA's Acheson said.
Acheson speculated a small, on-again, off-again source of contamination caused the outbreak, which would explain the relatively small number of illness. That "will make finding it in peanut butter difficult. But that's not going to stop us from looking," he said.
The strain in this outbreak, Salmonella serotype Tennessee, is comparatively rare, as is salmonella contamination of peanut products, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
It may have taken a long time to identify peanut butter as the source because "it's just not one of the first things you'd suspect," Smith DeWaal said. --- To get a refund, consumers should send lids and their names and addresses to ConAgra Foods, P.O. Box 3768, Omaha, NE 68103. For more information, call (866) 344-6970.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)