AP/Gregory Bull
Jalapeno peppers, implicated in a 2008 salmonella outbreak.

A Review of Recent Food Contamination Cases

July 08, 2009 06:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
As the Obama administration attempts to overhaul food safety laws, we look back at notable cases of salmonella and E. coli contamination in the past year.

Obama Administration Unveils Food Safety Plans

A food safety group headed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday announced the creation of a new rule for the production of eggs, and promised that there would soon be new regulations for poultry, beef, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and melons.

Many of the measures, writes Gardiner Harris of The New York Times, are “more aspirational than actual” and “are years away.” They are part of an overhaul by the Obama administration of food safety laws in order to cut down on the number of food recalls and outbreaks of bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli.

Tomato Salmonella Scare

In June 2008, in response to a salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that would sicken more than 1,400 people in 43 states between April and August, federal health officials warned that tomatoes were the source of the contamination. However, the true source of the outbreak was later discovered to be jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico.

A review of the federal response to the outbreak by the Produce Safety Project, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts at Georgetown University, found a “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.”

Salmonella Outbreak in Peanuts

In the fall of 2008, it was discovered that peanut butter produced by Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) and sold in bulk to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions was contaminated with salmonella typhimurium. As of April 20, 2009, 714 people had been infected with the strain, causing nine deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A federal investigation found that the Georgia plant was unsanitary, and that in 2007 and 2008 the company shipped products that had tested positive for bacterial contamination. The Associated Press reported that the FDA learned in April 2008 that a PCA shipment of peanuts contained a “filthy, putrid or decomposed substance,” but it did not investigate further.

“It strikes me that if FDA was paying attention to this information, that they might have gone and done an inspection of the plant in September instead of waiting until after the products were associated with a major outbreak,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, who directs the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

E. Coli in Cookie Dough

On June 19, 2009, Nestle issued a recall of its Toll House cookie dough products after it was linked to E. coli 0157, a bacterium found in the intestines of cattle. Ten days later, a sample from a Nestle plant in Danville, Va., tested positive for the strain. At least 69 people in 29 states became ill after eating the dough raw, according CDC numbers.

Salmonella in Pistachios

In March and April 2009, many companies issued recall of pistachio products after salmonella was detected in the processing plant of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, the country’s second-largest pistachio producer. Workers at the plant allegedly ran raw and roasted pistachios through the same assembly line, spreading salmonella from the raw pistachios onto the roasted ones that were then shipped out.

The contamination was discovered during testing—which was not required by the government—at a Kraft plant that received pistachios from Setton Pistachio. Several critics called for the FDA to mandate such testing to help control future outbreaks.

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