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Elliott Minor/AP
The Peanut Corp. of America, Blakely, GA.

As Salmonella Warnings Broaden, Fear and Skepticism Germinate

January 19, 2009 11:32 AM
by Emily Coakley
A salmonella outbreak has prompted a warning about all products containing peanut butter; other industries are still recovering from being implicated in past scares.

Products Containing Peanut Butter Suspected

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recommended that Americans should “postpone eating” products that contain peanut butter and peanut paste, including ice cream, cookies and candy, due to concerns over a salmonella outbreak, USA Today reported.

More than 80 companies have bought peanut butter from Peanut Corporation of America, which is the focus of an investigation into salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

An FDA official told USA Today that in the next few days, more information about the specific products suspected of containing tainted peanut butter would be available.

Some doubt the FDA’s announcement though, remembering last summer’s salmonella-tomato scare, which turned out to be caused by tainted jalapeno peppers.

On the blog The Daily Pundit, an editor known as “Genes” had doubts.

“Considering how well the CDC and FDA were able to track the salmonella in the tomatoes (or was that peppers?) can we take their word that it’s the PB?” Genes wrote, later adding: “It looks like neither the FDA nor the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] have learned a thing from the tomato fiasco. At least I can still have my PB&J.”

Others, such as a blogger named "Stone" on the Blogger News Network, aren’t taking any chances.

“I can only hope they have brought enough attention to this to prevent people from purchasing and consuming this peanut butter. Makes me want to go throw all of it out of my house,” Stone wrote on Sunday.
It’s not clear what impact the current investigation could have on the peanut industry, but the outbreak Genes mentions, and subsequent investigations, cost tomato-growers millions of dollars in lost revenue.

According to an Aug. 21 story in Western Farm Press, “The U.S. fresh tomato industry is still reeling over the negative impact of the FDA announcement: strained consumer confidence, reduced space for tomatoes in supermarket produce aisles, and about 50 percent lower fresh tomato prices for growers on certain varieties.”

Tomato growers were concerned, the article said, that they would suffer the same fate as spinach growers. In 2006, there was a nationwide salmonella outbreak linked to fresh spinach, though in that case, spinach actually was the culprit.

Western Farm Press described the 2006 outbreak: “what turned out to be one harvest from a single field of spinach literally destroyed the spinach market overnight from which the industry has yet to fully recover.”

Congress and federal health agencies planned to investigate what happened in tracing the outbreak, and why tomatoes were the focus for so long.

The Produce Safety Project reviewed public records surrounding the summer incident, which it called the salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, and said that lack of coordination among states and the government may have hurt the tomato industry.

“Despite more than a decade of concern about the public-health response in these outbreaks, the public record suggests significant lack of coordination and communication because of the current public-health organization and structure. It may well have resulted in a public-health response that was ineffective in protecting the public and caused significant unnecessary economic harm to the tomato industry,” the report said.

Background: Hundreds ill from current salmonella outbreak

So far, the salmonella outbreak has been linked to six deaths and illness in more than 400 people in 43 states. Peanut butter from PCA made available to institutions such as nursing homes, schools and hospitals is believed to be the source. The outbreak began in September, and federal health officials announced it earlier this month.

Kellogg was one of the first companies to ask retailers to stop selling any of its products that contain peanut butter, as PCA is a Kellogg supplier.

This is the second salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter in recent years. In 2007, ConAgra Foods recalled Peter Pan and Great Value brands of peanut butter with a particular product code after more than 400 people reported contracting salmonella. ConAgra, in April 2007, announced that a roof leak and broken sprinkler system at a Georgia plant helped moisture get into the peanut butter and produce salmonella, according to WebMD.

The current outbreak is different in that peanut butter sold directly to consumers is not involved.
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