Study Details 2008 Peanut Salmonella Outbreak

Readers of this blog know that we extensively covered the 2008 PCA Salmonella outbreak that affected peanut products distributed across the country, sickened many hundreds, impacted most of the states and Canada, and resulted in 9 deaths and 166 hospitalizations. The list of recalled foods made with PCA products topped 3,500 in that historic food poisoning outbreak.

The outbreak was blamed on Salmonella Typhimurium and traced back to the Peanut Corp. of America (PCA), said the LA Times. Now a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has found that the investigation into the outbreak occasionally suffered from food source trace efforts and problems with the nation’s food safety system, the LA Times explained.

Salmonella outbreak clusters were discovered in November 2008 in several states; food histories were taken and peanut butter and chicken were mentioned. Investigators probed further, products were tested, and peanut butter was found to be the outbreak’s cause, said the LA Times. PCA was discovered to be at the root of the outbreak, a significant issue since the firm sold peanut butter to institutional locations and some was used in commercial peanut butter-containing products, including peanut butter crackers.

Investigations of PCA facilities revealed a number of Salmonella routes. For instance, we have written that the PCA Georgia plant at the center of the outbreak was considered lax, at best, with the plant having been inspected by the state health department on 184 occasions since 2006, but with 114 of those inspections lasting under two hours. Not surprisingly, none of those inspections found evidence of the mold, cockroaches, and Salmonella bacteria uncovered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when it ultimately investigated the plant. Also, a second PCA plant in Texas, which was closed because of deplorable conditions, had never been properly licensed; yet, a state inspector who visited the plant on three occasions since 2005 actually indicated in his reports that the facility was licensed correctly.

The LA Times also mentioned rain and water leaks in storage areas in which roasted peanuts were stored, potential cross-contamination of raw and roasted peanuts, possible rodent contact, and that some peanuts were likely not roasted at temperatures sufficient to kill foodborne bacteria. The outbreak was ultimately linked to tainted peanut butter, roasted peanuts, and peanut paste made at PCA’s Georgia and Texas plants.

“This outbreak resulted in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and an estimated $1 billion loss in peanut sales,” wrote the study authors, said the LA Times. PCA filed for bankruptcy. Thousands of other food products contained tainted PCA peanut paste and peanut butter, said the researchers, which means that some 16 times more cased likely occurred. “This outbreak illustrates the challenge posed by ingredient-driven outbreaks,” they added, wrote the LA Times.

Following the outbreak, in 2009, The White House Food Safety Working Group and the FDA’s Reportable Food Registry was created. Also, the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law this year, noted the LA Times.

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