Jan. 21, 2009 -- More than 125 consumer peanut butter products, from more than 70 companies, have been recalled in the ongoing U.S. salmonella outbreak.
The most recent person to get sick fell ill on Jan 8. Since it takes up to three weeks for cases to be reported to the CDC, more cases are expected. So far, the CDC has received reports of six deaths and 107 hospitalizations among the 486 people sickened in 43 U.S. states and one Canadian province.
Yesterday the FDA announced that at least one brand of pet products -- PetSmart's Great Choice Dog Biscuits -- is made with peanut paste linked to the salmonella outbreak. The FDA says more human and pet products are likely to be recalled as the agency's peanut probe continues.
To keep track of the widening number of potentially contaminated products, the FDA has created a web site that will be updated as new information comes in.
To find out how they got sick, the CDC last weekend interviewed 57 people ill with the outbreak strain of salmonella and compared their food-consumption histories to 399 healthy people.
The result: Sick people outside institutions tended to have eaten the Kellog's Austin and Keebler brands of peanut-butter crackers already linked to contaminated peanut paste. Kellog's recalled the products as soon as it learned of the possible contamination, the day before the CDC investigation began.
Adults and children sickened at hospitals, nursing homes, and schools tended to have eaten the King Nut brand of peanut butter. In all 14 institutions for which detailed information is available, the CDC and state health departments traced salmonella illnesses to the King Nut brand of peanut butter.
King Nut peanut butter is sold in large containers only to institutions. No commercial peanut butter brands sold in grocery stores have been linked to the salmonella outbreak.
Tracing the Salmonella Outbreak
The joint FDA and CDC investigation has traced the salmonella outbreak to peanut butter and peanut paste, a product used in a wide range of peanut-flavored foods, made at a peanut processing plant in Blakely, Ga. The plant is owned and operated by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA); the FDA says it gets its peanuts from both domestic and international sources.
The most damning evidence against the PCA plant comes from Connecticut, where on Jan. 19 an unopened jar of King Nut peanut butter -- a brand sold only to institutions -- was found to contain the same Salmonella Typhimurium bacteria isolated from sick people at that institution.
King Nut gets its peanut butter directly from PCA. Earlier, the same strain of salmonella was found in an opened jar of King Nut peanut butter in Minnesota.
The second piece of evidence against PCA's Blakely plant comes from the FDA's ongoing investigation of the plant, which has been shut down. FDA detectives isolated salmonella in two places inside the plant.
While the salmonella found in the plant is different from the outbreak strain, it shows the plant did not operate under safe manufacturing procedures, says Stephen Sundlof, DVM, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Sundlof had strong words for the food manufacturing industry.
"The food industry is responsible for assuring their products are safe. They are required to follow good manufacturing practices," he says. "When something like this happens, it represents a failure of the industry -- or here, an individual in the industry -- not living up to what is expected from them from a legal and moral standpoint. And that is to make sure their products are not harmful to the public."
Salmonella in Peanut Butter
How can intensely processed foods contain living bacteria?
Sudlof says roasting of peanuts, if done correctly, is supposed to kill any salmonella that might be in the product. Either this did not happen at the Blakely plant, or the peanut products were contaminated after the roasting stage of the manufacturing process.
Heating to a proper temperature kills salmonella, but only if the bacteria are in a moist place. When in a product relatively free of water, such as peanut butter or peanut paste, the bacteria can survive heating, says Robert Tauxe, MD, MPH, deputy director of the CDC's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases.
"When salmonella is in something dry, it can survive much more heat than when it is in something wet. It is a curious phenomenon of the organism," Tauxe says.