Worried about salmonella, the Army said Thursday it's removing some peanut butter items from warehouses in Europe, the latest in an ever-growing list of recalled peanut products linked to a national salmonella outbreak.
Already more than 430 kinds of cakes, cookies and other goods in the civilian world have been pulled off store shelves in what the Food and Drug Administration is calling one of the largest product recalls in memory. The Army's recall does not affect Meals-Ready-to-Eat, but another kind of military grub called Unitized Group Rations-A, which provide a complete 50-person meal.
On Wednesday, the FDA called for a recall of all products containing peanut butter, peanut paste and peanut oil manufactured since Jan. 1, 2007 at the Blakely, Ga., processing center operated by Peanut Corp. of America.
That could vastly increase the number of recalled food and other products in the nation’s consumer supply.
Additional strains of salmonella also have been detected at the plant, although federal officials emphasized they have confirmed no illnesses beyond those associated with the current Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak.
"The outbreak is still ongoing and has decreased modestly even as the number of recalls have gone up,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director, of the division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases in the National Center for Zoonotic Vectorborne and Enteric Diseases.
A senior member of Congress and Georgia's agriculture commissioner have called for a criminal investigation, but the Food and Drug Administration says that's premature while its own probe continues.
The company says it is fully cooperating with the government and has stopped all production at the plant. Peanut Corp. said in a statement it "categorically denies any allegations that the company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products."
Stewart Parnell, the firm's president, said that the recall was expanded out of an abundance of caution.
"We have been devastated by this, and we have been working around the clock with the FDA to ensure any potentially unsafe products are removed from the market immediately," Parnell said.
At least 529 people have gotten sick in the outbreak, which has been linked to at least eight deaths. The recalled products containing peanut butter or peanut paste range from Asian-style cooking sauces, to ice cream, to dog treats.
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“It’s among the largest recalls that we’ve had,” said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “We don’t have a good idea how much of that product is still out there.”
The FDA has set up a searchable Web site that identifies recalled products. People without internet access can call the CDC information line at 1-800-CDC-INFO.
Most of the older products in the expanded recall have probably been eaten already. Officials said they see no signs of any earlier outbreaks from those goods.
Jarred peanut butter still likely safe
Major national manufacturers of peanut butter say they did not purchase products from PCA, so jarred peanut butter still appears to be safe, said Sundlof.
“People should not be concerned about national name brand peanut butter in jars in stores.”
Wednesday's recall follows reports by federal inspectors that salmonella had been found previously at least 12 times in products made at the plant. Inspectors found that the tainted peanut products were retested, then shipped to customers.
That happened as recently as September. A month later, health officials started picking up signals of the salmonella outbreak, which now has been linked to at least eight deaths.
Michael Rogers, a senior FDA investigator, said it's possible for salmonella to hide in small pockets of a large batch of peanut butter. That means the same batch can yield both positive and negative results, he said. The products should have been discarded after they first tested positive.
Missed warning signs
Peanut Corp. of America’s plant in Blakely, Ga., had 10 separate problem areas, Food and Drug Administration inspectors said in a report posted on the Internet.
FDA officials declined to say how agency investigators missed warning signs at the plant, such as mold, dripping water and other problems that indicated the plant may have been susceptible to contamination.
Video: Which peanut products are safe? The FDA's inspection report noted that the plant lacked adequate facilities for hand washing, and that a sink located in the peanut butter room was used interchangeably for cleaning hands, utensils and washing out mops.
“I can’t speculate on what a given inspector knows,” said Donald Zink, acting senior science advisor for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Calls for criminal investigation
FDA officials say it's too early to say what action will be taken against Peanut Corp. of America. The agency says it is preparing a report of findings on the plant and the company will be allowed to respond.
The FDA's Rogers told reporters on Wednesday that the agency has a number of regulatory options available. He declined to elaborate.
Separately, senior congressional and state officials on Wednesday called for a federal probe of possible criminal violations at the plant.
The company's actions "can only be described as reprehensible and criminal," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees FDA funding. "This behavior represents the worst of our current food safety regulatory system."
In Georgia, the state's top agriculture official joined DeLauro in asking the Justice Department to determine whether the case warrants criminal prosecution.
"They tried to hide it so they could sell it," said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "Now they've caused a mammoth problem that could destroy their company — and it could destroy the peanut industry."
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