Feb 16, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – A news report over the weekend linked six Salmonella cases in Colorado to peanut butter made from peanuts produced by Peanut Corp. of America's (PCA's) plant in Plainview, Tex., but the natural-foods retail chain that made the peanut butter says tests have found no contamination in samples.
The Associated Press (AP) reported Feb 14 that Colorado health officials linked the cases to the Plainview Peanut Co. in Texas, owned by PCA, which also owns the Blakely, Ga., peanut plant blamed for the current nationwide Salmonella outbreak.
The AP said the six Colorado cases were traced to peanut butter from Vitamin Cottage Natural Foods, based in Lakewood, Colo. Vitamin Cottage recalled its fresh-ground peanut butter on Feb 2 because of a potential connection to Salmonella cases.
But Kemper Isely, co-president of Vitamin Cottage, said today that testing by the company and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has revealed no contamination in peanut butter samples.
"No Salmonella has been found in any peanut butter tested so far," Isely told CIDRAP News. "Both our company and the FDA tested numerous batches. The implication that our peanut butter caused the Salmonella [cases] is a bit premature."
Isely said that 6 of the 16 Coloradoans who have had Salmonella Typhimurium in the current outbreak had Vitamin Cottage peanut butter in their pantries. "We don't know whether it would've been our peanuts" that caused the cases, he said. "There's lots of places you can get Salmonella."
Vitamin Cottage made peanut butter by grinding roasted peanuts bought from the Texas plant, Isely said. He said the peanuts were roasted in that facility at 350 degrees and so should have been free of pathogens unless they became contaminated after the roasting process.
The company voluntarily recalled its peanut butter as a precaution, Isely said. The firm's recall notice said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) had reported three people who were infected with the national outbreak strain of Salmonella and who reported eating Vitamin Cottage peanut butter. The CDPHE noted the recall in a Feb 2 news release.
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) ordered PCA on Feb 12 to recall all products ever shipped from the Plainview plant. "The order was issued after dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers were found in a crawl space above a production area during an in-depth DSHS inspection," the department said in a news release.
State inspectors also found that the plant's air-handling system was not completely sealed and was pulling debris from the infested crawl space into production areas of the plant, leading to adulteration of food products, the DSHS said.
Last week, the president of a private laboratory told a congressional committee that his firm had found Salmonella in a product sample from the Plainview plant on Feb 8. Earlier, it was revealed that the Plainview facility had operated without a license or government inspections from 2005 until the current outbreak put PCA in the spotlight.
Colorado, Texas, and FDA officials could not be reached for comment on the situation today. Most government offices were closed for the Presidents Day holiday.
The Salmonella outbreak involves 636 cases in 44 states and one in Canada, according to the latest count from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The FDA's recall database page says the outbreak has triggered 2,226 product recalls, though no national brands of peanut butter have been recalled.
In other developments, PCA applied for bankruptcy protection on Feb 13, according to a Reuters report. Citing the devastating effects of the outbreak and recalls, the company filed for Chapter 7 protection, under which firms liquidate their assets to repay creditors rather than reorganize, the story said.
Meanwhile, a survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found some gaps in the public's understanding of the peanut product recalls.
More than 90% of respondents were aware of the recalls, and 61% said they had taken one or more steps to reduce their risk of getting sick from contaminated peanut products, according to a Harvard news release. But among those aware of the recall, 25% mistakenly believed that major brands of peanut butter were involved.
Also, while 70% knew that peanut butter crackers were recalled, fewer than half knew that several other peanut butter products, such as snack bars, cakes, and cookies, were recalled, the release states. The survey of a national random sample of 1,283 adults was conducted between Feb 4 and 8.
Feb 12 Texas news release about recall order to Plainview plant
CDC Salmonella outbreak page
FDA product recall database
Feb 13 Harvard news release on survey of outbreak awareness