Global Processing

Peanut butter probe focuses on Georgia plant

January 16, 2009

The Associated Press reports that federal food safety inspectors are focusing on a peanut-processing plant in Georgia that makes peanut butter for institutional use as the possible source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 434 people in 43 states and may have contributed to five deaths. Peanut Corp. of America, which owns the plant in Blakely, Ga., said it has recalled products made at the plant after June 30. The closely held company, based in Lynchburg, Va., said it is withdrawing 21 lots of its peanut butter, in containers ranging from five to 50 pounds, as a precautionary measure. Neither the company nor government health officials have yet identified a source of the contamination. A Food and Drug Administration spokesman said inspectors have been collecting samples at the plant and checking records to see where the products were shipped. Peanut Corp. of America said it''s working closely with the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reported that there have been clusters of Salmonella infections in schools, long-term care facilities, hospitals and other institutions. Food safety experts say peanuts can become contaminated with Salmonella at the farm -- through animal manure that''s used to fertilize the soil or from tainted irrigation water -- or en route to a processing facility, if transportation equipment isn''t clean or the people handling it are infected. But once it gets to a peanut butter plant, proper roasting of the peanuts should kill the bacteria. Peanut Corp. of America recalled the peanut butter after the CDC identified it as a likely source of the outbreak. The company sells bulk peanut butter under the King Nut and Parnell''s Pride labels which are sold to schools, hospitals and nursing homes, but are not available at grocery stores. A U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman said they didn''t buy any of the recalled peanut butter for the National School Lunch Program or other food distribution programs. Peanuts are the 12th most valuable cash crop grown in the U.S., with a farm value of over $1 billion, according to the American Peanut Council. Peanut butter accounts for about half of the U.S. edible use of peanuts. Food retailers rang up more than $1.2 billion in peanut butter sales last year, Nielsen Co. reported. Peanut production in 2008 was estimated at 5.15 billion pounds, up 40% from 2007, making last year the largest U.S. crop on record, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture crop report. High peanut prices in 2007 and high contract prices again last year led farmers to plant more acres of peanuts. Now, peanut growers are worried about what impact this salmonella outbreak will have on future business. ConAgra''s sales and profits took a hit after its 2007 peanut butter recall. Kellogg Co. said it is putting a hold on sales of several of its Austin and Keebler brand peanut butter sandwich cookies and crackers as a precautionary measure until the FDA completes its investigation. The company hasn''t received any complaints about the products, but Peanut Corp. is one of the peanut-paste suppliers it uses for the cookies. The company said it is holding any inventory in its control, removing products from retail store shelves, and encouraging consumers not to eat these products until food safety authorities complete their investigation.