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Salmonella-tainted Peanut Butter Raises Wider Health Concerns for FDA

January 23, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Health officials are examining a salmonella outbreak linked to tainted peanut butter that has sickened nearly 500 people across 43 states and caused more than 100 product recalls. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour correspondent: The Food and Drug Administration now believes this peanut processing plant in Blakely, Ga., is the sole source of the nationwide salmonella outbreak.

Since September, when illnesses were first reported, six people have died. Another 488 from 43 states have been infected, many of them in nursing homes, where peanut butter from the plant was sold in bulk. So far, 125 products have been recalled that may contain salmonella-tainted peanut substances.

But Dr. Stephen Sundlof thinks the FDA is getting the outbreak under control.

DR. STEPHEN SUNDLOF, Food and Drug Administration: I think we’re very far along. We know who the major purchasers of the peanut butter and peanut paste were, and those major customers have already recalled products, so we have the majority of this under recall right now. The problem is now finding all of them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sundlof says that is complicated.

DR. STEPHEN SUNDLOF: This goes through a number of supply chains. So, as an example, it might go to a supplier who then supplies a confectionary or candy company that produces something like peanut butter and chocolate morsels that are then sold to another company that produces ice cream that may also contain peanut butter.

Peanut butter in many products

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sundlof says consumers should not be afraid to eat commercially produced peanut butter because the plant in Georgia produced it only in bulk that was sold to institutions, not to grocery stores.

But the FDA says consumers should be wary of products containing peanut paste made at the Georgia plant, which can include everything from crackers to ice cream, cookies, and granola bars.

DR. STEPHEN SUNDLOF: Check our Web site at www.FDA.gov and look at the recall list. It's very easy to get to. It's interactive.

Salmonella outbreaks increasing

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The salmonella outbreak is just the latest in a string of food contamination problems FDA has faced in recent years. Last summer, salmonella-tainted peppers were linked to the deaths of two people. A thousand more got sick.

Three years ago, the culprit was tainted spinach, when 200 people got sick from E. coli, and three people died.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says FDA has difficulty containing these outbreaks because it is a reactive, rather than a preventive agency.

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL, Center for Science in the Public Interest: The Food and Drug Administration really manages a very passive system when it comes to food safety. They're really acting more like a fire department, running out, putting out the trucks whenever a crisis emerges, instead of requiring every food processor to have food safety plans that are regularly audited by the government inspectors.

FDA lost some food inspectors

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And, she says, the FDA has lost many of its food inspectors.

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: The number of food inspectors has really declined over the last 20 years. And in recent years, we've seen a clear shift from food safety into the areas of drugs and medical devices. FDA has lost at least 100 people who were food inspectors in the last few years.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: FDA's Sundlof says the agency wants Congress to give it more regulatory power over food processors with mandatory prevention programs.

DR. STEPHEN SUNDLOF: In late 2007, the FDA came out with a new plan called Food Prevention Plan, which really focuses more on prevention than on the response. Now, it is correct that traditionally the FDA responds to food-borne outbreaks. We believe that there should be more emphasis on prevention. There are a number of bills before Congress which specifically address that issue.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So far, President Obama has not indicated his choice for the new commissioner of the FDA, but consumer groups are hoping he will appoint someone who wants to do a complete overhaul of the agency.