ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris. The news about peanut butter contamination just gets worst. So far, at least eight people may have died and more than 500 have been sickened by the salmonella outbreak. Officials say the outbreak is slowing but it's not over yet. All the cases are linked to a single plant. The peanut butter was sold only to institutions. Peanuts paste was sold to food manufacturers. NPR's Joanne Silberner has the latest.
JOANNE SILBERNER: Every foodborne outbreak is a detective story. The E. coli O157 illnesses fifteen years ago were mysteries until investigators linked to them to undercooked hamburger meat. Last summer, salmonella outbreak went on for months with tomato as the chief suspect until inspectors discovered it was really Mexican serrano and jalapeno peppers irrigated by contaminated water. The current outbreak comes from a peanut processing facility in Blakely, Georgia. Investigators from the Food and Drug Administration just got back from a two-week inspection. Stephen Sundlof heads the FDA's food safety division.
STEPHEN SUNDLOF: A lot of the infractions that were identified in the report were things such as failure to maintain proper cleanliness. They would find for instance dirt on some of the equipment that shouldn't have been dirty.
SILBENER: Hand washing sinks being used to wash mops, at least one cockroach, but what concerned Sundlof most?
SUNDLOF: In going through the firm's records, we learned that on full separate occasions the firm had tested their product, peanut butter or peanut paste, and found salmonella.
SILBENER: The manufacturer, Peanut Corporation of America, simply sent samples to a second lab that failed to find salmonella and carried on production. Sometimes salmonella shows up in a single product, but this time it's a contaminated ingredient and that makes the consumers job complicated says food scientist Bob Gravani of Cornell University.
BOB GRAVANI: That product is going to be present in many, many, many other products, and then consumers will have to kind of spend a little bit more time and effort thinking about do I have anything in my cupboard or in my shelves that contain this peanut butter from this particular plant.
SILBENER: The only way to know if you shouldn't eat the peanut butter cookie, cracker cake, or other peanut product is to check on the FDA's recall list. When in doubt, the agency says, don't eat it. Caroline Smith DeWaal is with the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest. She says the FDA doesn't have enough money or personnel to properly monitor food production facilities.
CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: So it really acts more like of fire department waiting for the crisis to occur, and then sending scientists and investigators out to explain what's happening even as the crisis is ongoing.
SILBERNER: The FDA, Sundlof says, the agency can't have investigators in every plant all the time.
SUNDLOF: What I would like the public to understand that there is a responsibility on the part of industry to produce a safe product. And when they don't, we will take immediate and aggressive corrective action.
SILBERNER: Meanwhile, some legislators on Capitol Hill think the solution is to move the food out of the Food and Drug Administration, to create an agency solely focused on food. Democratic congresswoman Rosa DeLauro plans to reintroduce legislation in the next couple of weeks that would do just that. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.
SIEGEL: As we just heard, the number of products affected by the salmonella outbreak is extensive so if you're concerned about peanut butter products on your shelves at home, here are some of the things to look for out for. It's in some cake products, cookie products, ice cream, and candy.
NORRIS: It's in snack bars, snack packs, and crackers, and it can be found in pet foods. Jars of consumer peanut butter are not affected, only peanut butter sold to big institutions. Again, the list is too long to read on our air but you can go to our Web site, npr.org for a link to a complete list of products and foods that the FDA says could be contaminated.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.