Peanut Butter Outbreaks: Rapid Response Required

February 19, 2013

When public health agencies recognized the signs of an emerging Salmonella outbreak in early September 2012, they could tell that the bacterium was contaminating a food popular with children.

And there aren’t many foods more loved by kids than peanut butter.

The outbreak of Salmonella Bredeney in peanut butter produced by one company has infected 41 people in 20 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The majority of those who have fallen ill with diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps are children under age 10.

More people would have fallen ill if not for fast action by federal and state public health agencies.

Those actions culminated on Nov. 26, 2012 with the Food and Drug Administration’s suspension of the food facility registration for Sunland Inc., of Portales, N.M. Sunland produced the peanut butter product linked to the outbreak—Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter made with Sea Salt.

This is FDA’s first use of the suspension-of-registration authority since the authority became effective in July 2011. Provided by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, this authority enables FDA to suspend a facility’s registration when the agency has determined, in part, that a food that is manufactured, processed, packed, or held by a facility is likely to cause serious illness or even death.

Sunland will not be able to distribute food from this facility until the suspension is lifted.

Donald Zink, Ph.D., a senior science advisor at FDA, says that peanut butter is particularly vulnerable to Salmonella contamination. “Salmonella is in the soil and peanuts come right out of the ground,” he says.

Great care has to be taken to produce peanut butter in a “highly sanitized” environment, he says. Special protections have to be in place to make sure the finished product isn’t contaminated after the nuts are roasted, the only “kill step” for the Salmonella.

However, FDA inspectors report finding insanitary conditions at Sunland, including conditions that likely resulted in cross-contamination between raw and roasted peanuts, such as unclean equipment that comes into contact with food, employees who didn’t wash their hands or wear clean gloves, and the use of totes to transport both raw and roasted peanuts without any cleaning or sanitizing process.

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