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We pasteurize milk: Should similar protection be mandated for other foods?

Agriculture.com Staff 01/22/2009 @ 9:28am

One of the recurring discussion topics of this column is food safety. In a recent column, we talked about imported honey. At other times we have talked about melamine in chocolates and wheat gluten, ethylene glycol in toothpaste, and e. Coli in beef and field-grown vegetables.

This week, we want to look at Salmonella in peanut paste and peanut butter used in commercial settings. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reported a genetic match between the Salmonella found in a batch of peanut butter at an institution in Minnesota and the strain of Salmonella that has caused illnesses in Minnesota and other states.

As a result, "the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is conducting a very active and dynamic investigation into the source of the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak. At this time, the FDA has traced a source of Salmonella Typhimurium contamination to a plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which manufactures both peanut butter that is institutionally served in such settings as long-term care facilities and cafeterias, and peanut paste -- a concentrated product consisting of ground, roasted peanuts -- that is distributed to food manufacturers to be used as an ingredient in many commercially produced products including cakes, cookies, crackers, candies, cereal and ice cream." (http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/salmonellatyph.html).

As a result of the finding, PCA voluntarily recalled all peanut butter produced on or after August 8, 2008, and all peanut paste produced on or after September 26, 2008, in its Blakely, Georgia, plant because of potential Salmonella contamination.

PCA's products are not sold to the public but are marketed to food manufacturers and institutional settings with the products sold in containers ranging from 5 pound buckets to tanker loads.

In addition to institutions removing the product from their inventory, a number of national and regional firms have issued recalls of some of their products that might have been contaminated by the PCA products. For the latest recall information, consumers are urged to check the FDA website cited earlier in this article.

According to an Associated Press report by Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar that was published on Sunday, January 18, 2009, "so far, more than 470 people have gotten sick in 43 states, and at least 90 had to be hospitalized. At least six deaths are being blamed on the outbreak."

The recall has been met with modest indifference with newspapers in unaffected areas consigning it to inside pages, if they print it at all.

Given the frequency of these events we want to raise several issues of public policy.

First, we are sure that the public wouldn't react with modest indifference if 6 people had died of bird flu. But because Salmonella is a common pathogen that causes food contamination on a regular basis, the public response is minimal. Clearly, known risks are taken far more casually than exotic or unknown risks.

Some would suggest that these deaths were unnecessary. After all, we have the means at hand to eliminate Salmonella, e. Coli, and other biologically based food borne pathogens -- irradiation. At the present time irradiation has been taken off the table as a means of preventing many of these pathogens in our food supply because of the potential for public outcry.

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