As the peanut butter salmonella outbreak continues to go unresolved, companies across the country are pulling their products from the shelves, citing "precautionary measures". Better safe than sorry, they say.
But Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told City Pages that the recall has gone too far and thus affected many Americans who weren't at risk in the first place.
"The recall has reached a level that is far beyond what's necessary," he says.
Osterholm stressed the severity of the outbreak and concerns about the nation's food supply, but companies took the recall too far. "I don't want to take away from the overall severity of the outbreak," he says. "Clearly this was a horrendous food safety disaster and the (product's producer) had no regard for the public's health."
On Jan. 30, the Food and Drug Administration confirmed
that the suspected salmonella outbreak could be traced back to peanut butter and peanut paste produced by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) at its Blakely, Georgia processing plant. The conclusion came from "a combination of epidemiological analysis and laboratory testing by state officials in Minnesota and Connecticut, the FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," the FDA says.
The outbreak has sickened at least 500 people and is suspected of killing eight.
According to the FDA report
, the plant was beyond notions of a filthy production facility.
A recap from USA Today
Food and Drug Administration inspectors who examined the plant last month found holes in the roof and stains that showed water regularly got into areas where the company kept finished food. There was mold on walls and ceilings in food storage areas, and roaches were found in the washroom.
The building had holes where pests could come and go and a crack in the floor that tested positive for salmonella. Dirt and contamination appeared in many places, including a "slimy, black-brown residue" that suggested the company put little priority on cleaning.
The plant is even accused of finding products that tested positive for salmonella, but still sending the products out. Their peanut butter products weren't sold directly to consumers, but they were often redistributed and used as an ingredient in other finished products.
The FDA confirmation sent many companies into a frenzy as they first began recalling bulk peanut butter and then that spread to crackers, cookies, and trail mix, to name a few. The number of recalls has now topped 800 across the country.
Osterholm says solving this case and preventing future illness is complicated by peanut butter's long shelf life and the dizzy maze of the country's food supply. The system remains broken.
"This was like peeling an onion," he says. "It demonstrates the magnitude of processed food in this country."
The GMA says PCA supplied less than 1% of peanut products sold in the U.S. Still, the FDA says the company has more than 300 customers, many of whom used PCA's products as an ingredient. "A pound of their product ends up in 100 pounds of other products," says John Sniffen of Orchard Valley Harvest, which last week recalled peanuts packed for Safeway.
So if this issue is so complicated, why does Osterholm think so many companies overreacted?
The outbreak only really effects raw peanut butter items, he says.
"Clearly it's a problem where the raw peanut butter or paste is consumed and not cooked," he says. But stores are now pulling items such as cookies from their shelves too that have no reason to be recalled. These types of cooked items often contain raw eggs on their ingredient list, which means they were already cooked long enough to destroy any salmonella risk associated with those raw ingredients.
As a consumer, what should you be concerned about? Osterholm says all of the major peanut butter brands are safe and all stores have already pulled recalled items from their shelves. If you have items at home that might contain peanut butter product, check the FDA recall list
to make sure it is safe to eat.