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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

410 sickened, 74 hospitalized and 3 deaths linked to Salmonella Typhimurium – tainted peanut butter and we have dueling Press Releases?

Minnesota’s “Team Diarrhea’s” release seems pretty straight forward; we have 30 people sick and most have an epidemiological exposure to King Nut Brand Creamy Peanut Butter, and the peanut butter tested positive for Salmonella Typhimurium, which matches the 30 people and the other 380 in the United States. If it walks and quacks like a duck it is a duck.

The FDA’s release seems much more equivocal – “CDC and public health officials in multiple states comparing foods eaten by ill and well persons have suggested peanut butter as a likely source. However, the epidemiological studies have not implicated any specific brand. … Product testing indicated the presence of Salmonella Typhimurium bacteria of the same strains found in the ongoing outbreak in an (open) 5-pound container of peanut butter that was offered in an institutional setting.”

I am not sure of the significance of the FDA’s focus on the fact that the can of peanut butter was opened (heck, likely how people became ill – from eating it), unless it is implying that the something contaminated the peanut butter (after) it was opened, thereby sickening the people in the nursing home (and) the dozens of others in the state that did not eat at the nursing home. Or, do you think it might have something to do with how the tomato/pepper outbreak played out, and this time the FDA does not want to bend towards public safety too quickly?

The CDC, appears to take a bit more aggressive stand – “Preliminary analysis of an epidemiological study conducted by CDC and public health officials in multiple states comparing foods eaten by ill and well persons has suggested peanut butter as a likely source.” And, they do take note of Minnesota’s epidemiological and lab work. The CDC also notes, that “clusters of infections in several states have been reported in schools and other institutions, such as long-term care facilities and hospitals, and King Nut is the only brand of peanut butter used in those facilities for which we have information.”

King Nut, who correctly issued a recall on January 10, takes an FDA spin on the facts – “We also made it clear that we do not manufacture King Nut peanut butter nor do we supply any ingredients for the peanut butter. We are simply the distributors.” They then go on to claim that “we only distribute in seven states and therefore King Nut peanut butter could not possibly be the source of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella. (King Nut peanut butter is distributed to food service companies in Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, Arizona, Idaho and New Hampshire.)”

Peanut Corporation of America took a rather “heartfelt” position – “PCA today expressed its deep concern about the apparent finding of salmonella in a container of one of its products distributed in Minnesota.” Hmmm, no deep concern for the 410, or at least the people in Minnesota? PCA goes on to echo the FDA – “the salmonella was found in an open container of King Nut peanut butter at a nursing facility, which leaves open the possibility of cross contamination from another source.”

So, were do these dueling press releases leave us?  Is there a real commitment to pulling the product off the shelves?  Is this, and future outbreaks, going to be tainted by a "tomato hangover?"  Will the CDC and FDA be more concerned with business interests or with public safety?  These are tough, but fair questions to ask.  This peanut butter outbreak has far better epidemiological evidence than did tomato/pepper, but our public health authorities seem to have their feet stuck in the peanut butter.  They jumped quick to throw the tomato industry under the bus, but here they seem to be letting certain folks in the peanut industry run a red light.

I keep telling myself that "Change is on the way."