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By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 2/5/2009 9:34:51 AM ET 2009-02-05T14:34:51

Normally, a tractor-trailer load of Keebler snack crackers and other foods would be a boon to a food bank that distributes 750,000 meals a month.

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But the boon turned to a bust at the Bay Area Food Bank in Mobile, Ala., in January, when many of the donated foods turned up in a vast recall of peanut products linked to a national salmonella outbreak.

“For us, we’ve pulled at least 2,000 pounds that we know of, but it’s probably more like 20,000 pounds,” said David W. Reaney, executive director of the agency.

Across the U.S., directors of food banks that provide last-chance meals for the hungry say they’re in the same situation, having to toss out protein-rich food donations just as a slumping economy has spiked demand for help by 20 percent to nearly 50 percent in some places.

The outbreak, which has sickened at least 550 people in 43 states and contributed to eight deaths, has led to an ever-growing recall that has taxed volunteer resources, strained food inventories and planted new worries about emergency food provided to already vulnerable people.

“Vast amounts of these products have already been consumed,” said Reaney. “If it was a set of crackers passed out to a homeless guy on the street, how do you know what made him sick?”

No illnesses tied to food banks
So far, none of the illnesses or deaths has been linked to food bank foods, said Lola Russell, spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Salmonella

But that hasn’t assuaged the worries of food bank operators who are feeling the fallout of one of the nation’s largest-ever recalls, all linked to production practices at the Blakely, Ga., plant operated by Peanut Corp. of America, now under criminal investigation.

Products from at least 420 of the firm's commercial customers dating to Jan. 1, 2007 have been added daily to a growing roster of potentially tainted foods.

In Seattle, the Northwest Harvest food bank threw out 220 pounds of snack crackers on Tuesday and quarantined other peanut products until further notice, said communications director Claire Acey.

In Tucson, Ariz., volunteers combed through nearly 4,000 emergency food boxes on 130 pallets to remove potentially tainted packs of peanut butter crackers, said public relations manager Jack Parris. 

In Flint, Mich., workers at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan have hand-picked 2,700 pounds of peanut-based snacks from reclaimed donations, said agency president Bill Kerr.

And at the Food Bank of New York City, the impact hasn't been as widespread, but organizers are seeking more volunteers to sift through donations of NutriSystem granola bars to remove all the peanut-flavored varieties, said Carol Schneider, media relations manager.

“It’s been a huge drain on volunteer resources and a disruption to our ongoing operations,” said Betsy Ballard, communications officer for the Houston Food Bank, where 30 volunteers a day have sorted peanut products from 10,000 food boxes.

“It’s a stinky time for this to happen because we have so many other things to pay attention to,” she added.

More seeking help
Rising unemployment, decimated investments and increasing home foreclosures have sent more people than ever seeking help from food banks, said Ross Fraser, media relations manager for Feeding America, a nationwide network of 206 food distributors that supply some 63,000 pantries and soup kitchens.

The recall hurts efforts like the Backpack Buddy program that provides extra meals and snacks — often peanut butter crackers — to some 80,000 to 90,000 schoolchildren a year. But it also affects the larger program that moves 2 billion pounds of food a year and feeds at least 25 million people annually — and probably far more.

“At this stage of the game, anything that throws a monkey wrench into the process is a problem,” Fraser said.

While food banks are used to recalls, they’re not used to getting dozens of notices a day, said Evelyn Behm, vice president for food and strategic initiatives for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, which distributed 21 million pounds of food last year in 20 counties.

“This is kind of the biggest one we’ve faced with such a variety of manufacturers and distributors involved in a variety of products,” she said.

Some food banks have stopped trying to discern which peanut products are on the recall lists and instead pulled almost anything that contains peanuts or peanut butter.  In part, that saves time, said Jacque Grieve, food program manager at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Recovery Network in Portland, Ore.

But it also saves worry at a time when first requests are up 40 percent and people who never imagined they’d need a food box are seeking help.

“Their pride is broken and they come and ask and they don’t know how to do it,” Grieve said. “We don’t want them to look in the food box and ask, ‘Is it bad? Isn’t it bad? Can I feed it to my children?’”

For now, the food bank managers say they’re on top of the problem. But they’re wary about what may come next. This week, Kellogg’s added to the recall Keebler chocolate chunk and oatmeal raisin cookies and Special K honey-almond protein bars, products that contain no peanuts, but were manufactured on machinery that was also used for the potentially tainted peanut items.

“Now we’re going from peanuts to almonds,” Grieve said. “How vast is this going to get?”

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