Minnesota Department of Health/AP
Lab tests found salmonella in this open
5-pound container of peanut butter
from a Minnesota nursing home.

Contaminated Peanut Shipment Returned to US Before Salmonella Outbreak

January 30, 2009 12:29 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Canadian officials rejected tainted peanut exports from the United States weeks before the salmonella outbreak surfaced.

Questionable Peanut Butter Shipments

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew the peanut shipment was bound for Canada but it was never tested for contaminants, according to Sharon Theimer of the Associated Press.

After the peanuts, which came from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), were rejected in Canada, the FDA refused to let them back into the United States. The Associated Press said an FDA report indicated that the shipment contained a "filthy, putrid or decomposed substance, or is otherwise unfit for food." What ultimately happened to the peanut shipment is uncertain.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, who directs the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the rejection of this peanut shipment is important because it happened so soon before the main salmonella outbreak. DeWaal said the FDA might have been able to inspect the PCA plant before the problem became widespread.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is recalling several food items that contain peanuts or peanut products for fear that they, too, could have salmonella, according to The Gazette in Montreal.

The Canadian recall is related to the current salmonella problem in the United States. No illnesses have been reported in Canada, however.

Peanut Corp’s Checkered Past

The FDA has found that PCA shipped peanut products in 2007 and 2008, even after tests found bacterial contamination in the food, USA Today reports.

In some of the 12 cases reported by the FDA, the company had the product tested again by another lab, with clean results. But the product should have been destroyed after the first test, said Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, because a retest may not have found the salmonella.

The outbreak is believed to have sickened 501 people in 43 states and may have led to eight deaths.
Consumer advocates are appalled at the company and its obvious attempts to save money while endangering customer safety, but are also casting doubt on the government’s ability to protect consumers.

“This kind of lab-shopping is absolutely shocking, and it really shows that the FDA’s program is inadequate to protect American consumers,” said Sarah Klein, who works for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to KRIS-TV in Corpus Christi, Texas.

But this is far from the first time a company has been accused of knowingly distributing a subpar—or even deadly—product to save money despite consumer dangers. The baby food company Beech-Nut was famously fined for doing so in 1987, and Ford allegedly decided not to fix a deadly design flaw in the Pinto despite knowing the potential consequences to drivers.

Historical Context: Corporations sacrificing consumer health and safety

There have been many corporations accused of knowingly putting consumers in danger, but the two most famous involve apple juice and compact cars.

Baby food producer Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation was fined $2 million in 1987 after the government discovered that it was selling apple-less apple juice for babies.

The New York Times reported in November of that year that the corporation had intentionally distributed the so-called juice—made of beet sugar, cane sugar syrup, corn syrup and other ingredients—“with the intent to disfraud and mislead.” Prosecutors in the case said the product cost about 20 percent less to make than real apple juice.

More famously, a memo allegedly distributed by Ford executives in the 1970s addressed a fatal design flaw in the Ford Pinto: the lack of a structure between the car’s rear panel and its fuel tank, an omission that lead to an estimated 500 deaths in rear-end collisions. Mother Jones magazine reported in 1977 that Ford executives were aware of the flaw before the vehicle went into production, but decided the cost of paying out lawsuits for deaths would be cheaper than redesigning the car.

Background: Hundreds ill from current salmonella outbreak

The salmonella outbreak began in September. Peanut butter from Peanut Corporation of America made available to institutions such as nursing homes, schools and hospitals is believed to be the source.

The FDA has recommended that Americans “postpone eating” products that contain peanut butter and peanut paste, including ice cream, cookies and candy, due to concerns over a salmonella outbreak. More than 80 companies may have bought contaminated peanut butter made by PCA.

Some newspapers listed more specific information, as provided by the FDA. The San Francisco Chronicle provides a thorough Q&A section on salmonella, the recent outbreak and the specifics of the recall list.

Consumers are warned not to buy or consume a growing list of products containing peanut butter; the full list is available on the FDA Web site.

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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