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Snack Shelf Epidemic

How Long Will It Take to Stop the Salmonella Outbreak?

receipt with IMPORTANT RECALL NOTICE for peanut products SOURCE: The peanut product recalls continue, revealing more cracks up and down the food safety system. And people keep getting sick.

The plan was hatched by foreign extremists after watching a Saturday morning snack-food commercial: Peanuts and peanut butter! What could be more American? And what better way to take down the evil empire but through its own, disgusting food supply?

Weiss’s Notebook

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss

CAP Senior Fellow Rick Weiss covered science and medicine for The Washington Post for 15 years, and now he brings his investigative eye to science policy. From cloning and stem cells to agricultural biotechnology and nanotechnology, Weiss examines the issues at the intersection of cutting edge research and public policy.

Salmonella bacteria was the weapon of choice. Colorless. Odorless. Invisible. “They think they are such royalty, those Americans,” the terrorists laughed. “Well they can spend all day and all night on their porcelain thrones!”

Okay. It didn’t happen that way. It was just a shoddy American peanut-processing company trying to maximize its profits from lousy legumes, filthy with fecal bacteria. But there is something distressing about the U.S. response to this home-grown catastrophe, which has now sickened 683 people in 46 states and forced the recall of about 3,500 food products.

More than two years after the Peanut Corporation of American began seeding Salmonella through the U.S. food supply—and more than two months after federal investigators proved consumers were getting ill from peanut products made in the the company’s Blakely, Georgia, processing plant—the number of cases continues to grow.

In addition to the more than 100 victims who were made so seriously ill that they had to be hospitalized, at least eight people have died from Peanutgate, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than the five who died as a result of the anthrax bioterror attacks of 2001. And yet, says a recent CDC posting: “The outbreak is continuing….”

Nowhere is the nation’s inability to rein in this epidemic more obvious than in the steady flow of alerts from the Food and Drug Administration that, day after day, comes into my e-mail box, announcing foods newly added to the list of recalled products. In the last three days of last week alone, I received notices about 11 companies recalling more than 17 different products because of the peanut recall (just see the sidebar to get an idea).

Selected Recalled Products, March 11 through 13

On Friday alone it was the Euphoria Chocolate Company of Eugene, Oregon, recalling its Milk and Dark Chocolate Peanut Clusters; Rock Creek Nut Company of Union, Oregon, recalling its Trail Fix, Gourmet Delight and Quick Fix trail mixes; Dr. Smoothie of Fullerton, California, expanding its recall of its Peanut Butter Crunch Bio Bars; Blue Heron Bakery of Olympia, Washington, recalling its Spelt Peanut Butter and Spelt Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies and Mud Bay Trail Mix; and Chocolate Chewies, Inc., of Eugene, Oregon, recalling its Baba Joon’s Peanut Chocolate Chewie cookies.

A day earlier it was the Coos Head Food Store of North Bend, Oregon, recalling Mt Hood Trail Mix. And before that it was New Nissi Corp. of Paterson, New Jersey, recalling its Peanut Crunch; Alaska Canine Cookies of Anchorage, Alaska, recalling its Peanut Butter, Power Bone and Carrot Cake flavors of Canine Cookies; Sweet Life Patisserie of Eugene, Oregon, recalling all of its products made with whole or chopped peanuts; Dan the Sausageman recalling its packages of Anna’s Pantry honey roasted peanuts used in the company’s gift boxes; and Country Village Nutrition Shoppe of Longview, Washington, recalling a brand of trail mix.

Shouldn’t we pretty much know by now which products are affected? What if this was a terror attack? Can’t we do better than this?

Granted, part of the problem is that earlier this year the FDA concluded that a second processing plant owned by the same company also sent out contaminated peanut products. So the list of affected distributors, retailers, and products grew, and a new wave of notifications got underway. Still, it’s been more than a month since that source was documented. And at least some of the most recent recalls relate to products produced back in Georgia, which—let’s face it—really should have been tracked and pulled from the market by now.

It hasn’t helped that the owners of Peanut Corp., consummate businessmen that they are, saw which side of their peanut-butter-smeared bread was going to fall face down, so promptly declared bankruptcy and bailed. They are legally responsible for contacting their various distributors. However, the company announced last month, “The firm’s assets are currently under the control of a bankruptcy trustee, which impacts the company’s ability to take any actions regarding recalled products ….” As though it was such a responsible company before it went into bankruptcy, but anyway.

These particulars notwithstanding (and as I have complained about before) the nation’s system for getting a handle on these kinds of outbreaks is clearly in need of a major overhaul. Thanks to bioterror legislation passed in 2002, food suppliers must have records showing from whom they got products and to whom they sold products—one step in each direction. But food supply chains often contain several middleman-distributors, so the notification process slowly bumps along, one link at a time.

I called several retailers last week who had become caught up in the recall. One told me that she got a call from her distributor asking to whom he should send an important letter about an issue he didn’t want to mention on the phone. She said, “It’s me. Just tell me what’s up.” But he insisted on sending a letter, which arrived three days later, telling her that some of the food he had shipped previously needed to be recalled.

“I called back, furious,” she told me. “I told him, ‘I’ve been selling this for three days when I could have pulled it!’”

As I learned from my calls, many of these operations are small; although they have computers, their shipping records are often paper invoices, stored in boxes; they have neither legal staffs to interpret their responsibilities nor spare workers to thumb through stacks of invoices to compare lot numbers and production codes and to figure out which batches have sold and which may still be in their storerooms or warehouses.

“It’s ludicrous to trace back through paper records,” Mike Taylor, a former FDA deputy commissioner, told me last week. Yet that is what stitches the U.S. food sales network together. And though several bills recently introduced into Congress make tippy-toe steps toward insisting upon better, computerized tracking systems, none really takes the tiger by the tail (to mix a few anatomical metaphors).

Most of these companies also have no idea how to handle a recall, which under federal law is their responsibility, not the FDA’s. And guess what? There is no time limit under the law stipulating the number of days a company can take to alert consumers about contaminated products. So most of those I spoke to just waited until an FDA employee could find the time to get to their doorstep and, in person, walk them through the process.

Meanwhile the stuff keeps getting sold, and more people get sick.

The real kicker here is that, by the time any of this happens, most of this food is long gone and long eaten. Many of the notices last week were for trail mix and other snacks sold last fall. Some of the recalled foods were distributed as far back as 2007. It’s enough to make you wonder whether this whole, hugely expensive recall process is more a federally sponsored ass-covering process than an actual strategy for promoting the public health.

Rick Weiss is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Science Progress.

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