US officials have launched a criminal investigation into the salmonella outbreak tied to tainted peanut products that have sickened more than 500 people, and may have caused at least eight deaths.
The probe will focus on possible criminal violations at the Georgia processing plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America, which knowingly shipped peanut butter and peanut paste products in the past that had tested positive for salmonella, officials have said.
Dr Stephen Sundlof, head of the US Food and Drug Administration's food safety centre, said the Justice Department will head up the investigation, with assistance from the FDA. "I can confirm that FDA's Office of Criminal Investigation is involved in a Justice Department investigation of PCA," Sundlof said.
As of Friday, 529 people in 43 states and one person in Canada have been sickened in the outbreak, which has prompted the recall of more than 430 products by 53 companies. While the rate of new illnesses seems to be declining - an indication that the outbreak may be winding down - officials said reports of new cases could be expected to continue for weeks.
Not the first time Peanut Corp involved in tainted foods
The current salmonella outbreak isn't the first time Peanut Corp. has been involved in shipping tainted product, Sundlof said. Last April, months before the first signs of the salmonella outbreak appeared in the United States, peanuts exported to Canada were found to be tainted. The shipment was refused by a Canadian distributor because "the peanuts had metal fragments in them," Sundlof said.
The products were then returned to the United States and destroyed in November after the FDA rejected as "unacceptable" findings by a private lab hired by Peanut Corp. to analyse the product, Sundlof said.
The criminal investigation also follows disclosure by FDA officials Tuesday that, from 2007 into 2008, the company shipped peanut butter that it knew had been contaminated with salmonella. "The FDA team identified 12 instances where the firm, as part of its own internal testing program, identified some type of salmonella and released a product after it was retested," said Michael Rogers, director of FDA's division of field investigations in the Office of Regional Operations.
Inspection reports released from FDA investigators at the plant two weeks ago cited a litany of safety and sanitation problems and a trail of products that were sent out after being retested to clear the salmonella contaminants.
Nationwide recall underway
Meanwhile the outbreak has prompted health officials to announce a startling nationwide recall for all peanut products made over the last two years at the Georgia plant.
The recall involves all whole peanuts, dry and oil roasted; granulated peanuts; peanut meal; peanut butter, and peanut paste, Sundlof said. At this point, apparently, the only safe peanut butter is in name-brand jars on store shelves. Hundreds of other peanut and peanut paste products have been recalled so far.
Because most of the tainted products went to institutions like schools, more than half the victims have been children, officials said.
The problem first showed up as a small multi-state cluster of a strain of the bacteria on November 10 of last year. It took the search party until December 28 to narrow the possible target to peanut products being served in institutions.
Tainted peanut butter used in other foodstuffs
In between, according to the detailed account in the January 29 early release issue of the CDC publication, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the problem grew, as reports of illnesses did likewise.
As of January 28, at least 431 peanut butter containing products had been recalled by 54 companies that had used ingredients produced at the Peanut Corp. facility after July 1, 2008, according to the CDC documents. Now, FDA inspectors must tackle the monumental task of tracking and removing products that were sent, by their own accounts, to 2 100 different locations.
The problem is compounded by the fact that most of the products are not whole products sitting on store shelves. In fact, jars of plain-old peanut butter are safe to consume, since they were not made at the plant. However, Peanut Corp. supplied institutions and others with product that was used mainly for making other products, everything from candy and cookies to dog biscuits, ice cream and peanut butter crackers.
"There is a lot of work in finding out what is causing an outbreak," CDC epidemiologist and report co-author Dr Casey Barton Behravesh said.
"Once a cluster or outbreak is identified, we call people and ask a lot of questions about foods they may have eaten or other types of exposures that have been linked to illness in the past," she explained.
Timeline of the outbreak
In the current outbreak, hundreds of CDC and state health department officials talked with hundreds of people, Barton Behravesh noted: "We were making hundreds and hundreds of phone calls."
CDC officials first noticed on November 10 of last year that there was an uptick in the number of cases of Salmonella Typhimurium; 13 cases in several states, to be exact. On November 25, the CDC began an epidemiological investigation. By November 24, 41 cases had been reported.
In late December, the Minnesota Department of Health had narrowed their investigation to institutions where peanut butter from King Nut was served. On January 9, the Minnesota investigators found the suspected strain in an open container of King Nut peanut butter.
The peanut butter was traced to Peanut Corp. of America and its plant in Blakely, Ga. On January 9, the company stopped production of all peanut products. On January 16, it issued a recall of products produced since July 1, 2008. That recall has now been extended to products produced in the plant going back to January 1, 2007.
Meanwhile, on January 16, Connecticut health officials found the outbreak strain in an unopened can of King Nut peanut butter. In late January, a study by the CDC had determined that contamination was also likely in other foods.
Death toll at 8, but many still sick
The bad news is that, despite the outbreak appearing to be on the wane, the illnesses haven't ended, even though the death toll still stands at eight victims.
"This was definitely a successful outbreak investigation," Barton Behravesh said. "But we are still working on it. We are still continuing surveillance and identifying new cases, though in not the large numbers we were seeing previously."
And while US health officials expect more victims to surface in the United States and Canada as the search for tainted product continues, the CDC document reveals that the problem may actually be much more widespread than that.
A footnote to the document lays out the full scope: "As of January 27, 2009, FDA was aware of distribution in the following countries and non-US territories: Aruba, Australia, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Haiti, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, St. Maarten, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the United Kingdom."
Tainted exports returned
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that peanuts exported by Peanut Corp. were found in Canada to be contaminated and returned to the United States several weeks before the current outbreak began.
The rejected shipment, from the now-shuttered plant, came across a bridge from Canada to New York state in mid-September. The shipment was "logged by the Food and Drug Administration, but never was tested by federal inspectors, according to the government's own records," the AP reported.
The chopped peanuts were prevented by the FDA from being allowed back into the United States because the nuts contained an unspecified "filthy, putrid or decomposed substance, or is otherwise unfit for food," according to an FDA report of the incident, the news service said. – (HealthDay News, February 2009)
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