Peanut butter maker says moisture triggered Salmonella contamination

Apr 6, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – ConAgra, the producer of peanut butter linked to a nationwide Salmonella outbreak in February, announced yesterday that its own investigation found that moisture might have triggered the growth of the bacteria.

Inadvertent moisture in the company's Sylvester, Ga., production facility could have allowed the growth of dormant Salmonella organisms that were likely present in raw peanuts or peanut dust, ConAgra stated in a press release yesterday.

Stephanie Childs, ConAgra spokesperson, told the Associated Press that the moisture came from a roof that leaked during a rainstorm and a faulty sprinkler system that went off twice. The company cleaned the plant thoroughly and repaired the sprinkler system after the moisture problems occurred, she said.

The Salmonella outbreak began in August and sickened 425 patients in 44 states. After the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked Salmonella enterica serovar Tennessee isolates from sick patients to their consumption of Peter Pan products and certain jars of Great Value peanut butter, both made at the Sylvester, Ga., plant, ConAgra recalled the products on Feb 14. S enterica typically causes fever and nonbloody diarrhea that resolves in a week.

On Mar 1, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that its investigators found S enterica in samples collected at the ConAgra plant, suggesting that the contamination occurred before the product reached consumers.

ConAgra, in its press release, detailed several steps it will take to improve the safety of its food products. The company:

  • Established a new position, vice president of global food safety, and appointed Paul A. Hall, a nationally recognized food safety expert, to the post
  • Formed a Food Safety Advisory Committee, headed by Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia
  • Approved a plan to install new machinery throughout the plant

In response to ConAgra's announcement, Michael Herndon, an FDA spokesperson, told CIDRAP News that "The FDA's mission is to protect and promote the public health and to that end supports ConAgra's steps to help safeguard the food supply as outlined in their release."

The FDA's investigation at the plant is ongoing, he said.

ConAgra said it has contracted with a third-party manufacturer to make Peter Pan products while plant renovations are under way at the Sylvester, Ga., plant. It said it expected to resume shipping Peter Pan products to retailers this summer and reopen its plant in August.

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