Let's Ask Marion: What's Your Take On The Salmonella Outbreak?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics:)

Kat: It's like deja "ew" all over again. As the salmonella-tainted peanut butter outbreak continues to spread (no pun intended), more than 125 products have been recalled, and the list grows longer everyday, including everything from dog biscuits to ice cream to energy bars. Hundreds of people have been sickened and at least six people are suspected to have died from this latest lapse in our fractured food chain.

We now know that the source of the salmonella is peanut paste from a processing plant in Georgia, owned by Peanut Corp. of America. You linked to a helpful Scientific American article the other day which explains that the contamination most likely occurred after the peanuts were roasted, since salmonella can't survive high temperatures. This would seem to implicate the factory. But the company, which sources its peanuts from both domestic and foreign farmers, buys some that are already roasted, according to the LA Times.

As the Scientific American article notes, the most likely source of salmonella is animal feces. Inspectors investigating the outbreak at the Georgia plant found a second strain of salmonella on the premises in addition to the one implicated in the illnesses. This is not reassuring. Scientific American reports that "there are some 40,000 cases of salmonella infection each year; about 600 of them are fatal." Is it too much to ask that our foods not come in to contact with bird droppings or rodent excrement or whatever other forms of fecal matter seem to be floating around in our food processing factories?

Dr. Nestle: No, it is not too much to ask. It’s not rocket science to produce safe food. All it takes is a food safety plan, one that is planned intelligently, followed diligently, and monitored carefully. Pillsbury designed a prototype for NASA to make sure that astronauts did not get food poisoning in outer space (upset stomachs and diarrhea under conditions of zero gravity? I don’t think so). They called the prototype HACCP, standing for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point with Pathogen Reduction, a mouthful.

It’s too bad that the name is so off-putting. All it means is that you look for places where contamination can occur in the production process, take steps to prevent that from happening, check to make sure the steps were followed, and test to make sure they system is working the way it is supposed to. If it works in outer space, which it definitely does, it ought to work on earth, no?

So my first take on the peanut butter situation is that the company either wasn’t following a HACCP plan, or its plan was deeply flawed, or nobody was checking. Any of these is inexcusable. What is so distressing about this situation is that it is a dead-on repeat of the pet foods recalls of 2007. I thought they were such a warning of what would happen if we didn’t fix our food safety system, that I wrote Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine to make that point.

The same thing happened with peanut butter: one company makes a generic product (or uses generic ingredients) that get shipped out and sold under dozens of brand names. The company is vague about where its ingredients come from and doesn’t always know where they go. The result is sick cats, dogs, or people in practically every state with maybe a few other countries tossed in.

And then melamine, the toxin in pet food, turned up in Chinese infant formula and made nearly 300,000 Chinese babies sick. This week, the Chinese courts dealt with two of the managers of the company that produced the melamine-tainted infant formula. It sentenced them to death. The Chinese government is taking food safety seriously.

We tend to be more casual about food safety problems, which is why we do not have a food safety system that covers all foods from farm to table. We have had plenty of warning that we need a more comprehensive system: spinach in 2006, pet food in 2007, tomatoes or peppers in 2008, and now peanut butter. How many people will it take to get sick or die before Congress requires HACCP for all foods? I just want Congress to do something about this before even more harm is done.

In the meantime, commercial jars of peanut butter are supposed to be OK, but one member of Congress (Rosa deLauro, Dem-CT) is asking the FDA to do a complete recall of all peanut butter until it can be shown to be safe. Oh well, you can always grind your own.

While HACCP maybe a suitable

While HACCP maybe a suitable standard for larger producers and distributers; to impose its standards on small, local producers would bankrupt them. At the current time the only distributers meeting the standard I’m aware of are Sid Wainer and more recently Baldors. Making every one meet these standards would shut down most small organic and local producers. The cost of the equipment and alterations to the physical plant are enormous for a small concern. Lets start at the large nationals and regionals before we destroy the small local producer with more rules designed for outer space.

While I'm not in favor of

While I'm not in favor of the death penalty, I think we'd be far better off in the US if criminal proceedings, manslaughter at the least, were undertaken against the officers of corporations whose products kill people. The impunity with which they are allowed not to give a damn about the health and safety of their customers is breathtaking.