Packaged-foods company ConAgra Foods, Inc. says that the nationwide recall of peanut butter it launched will cost between $50 and $60 million. A salmonella outbreak that has grown to nearly 300 cases in 39 states since August 2006 has been linked to tainted peanut butter. According to officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 20% of the 288 people infected have been hospitalized. About 85% of the affected people said they ate peanut butter, according to CDC officials. It is not clear how salmonella got into peanut butter. The FDA warned consumers not to eat certain jars of Peter Pan or Great Value peanut butter because of the risk of contamination. The affected jars had a product code on the lid that begins with the number “2111,” and were made by ConAgra in a single facility in Sylvester, Georgia. Omaha, Nebraska-based ConAgra recalled all Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter beginning with product code 2111.
At least one death has been reported by a family who has filed a lawsuit claiming a relative died from eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter. The family alleges the peanut butter killed the mother and sickened her husband and daughter. The mother had been hospitalized with gastrointestinal problems, then developed a bacterial infection before she died January 30, 2007. One issue was raised in this case and many others. The mother was not tested for salmonella. We would expect many claims to be for persons who were sickened by the peanut butter, but physicians did not think to take a blood test or stool sample to make a definitive diagnosis of salmonella. It has yet to be determined how many claimants will be able to confirm this diagnosis.
While Alabama was among the affected states, the largest number of salmonella cases was reported in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri. Salmonella infection is known each year to sicken about 40,000 people in the United States according to the CDC. Salmonellasis, as the infection is known, kills about 600 people annually. Symptoms of salmonella can include diarrhea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting. With such common symptoms, many people who were probably sickened by the peanut butter have probably gone undiagnosed.
Could the FDA have caught this sooner? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added food safety to its list of “critically flawed” federal programs. Fifteen separate federal agencies presently deal with food safety issues. This has left the United States vulnerable to outbreaks of food-borne illness, or worse, a terrorist attack, according to the GAO. The GAO, the non-partisan investigative arm of Congress said it added food safety to its so called “high risk” of federal programs because the system is out of date, is often unscientific and lacks accountability. Each year about 76 million people contract a food-borne illness; about 325,000 are hospitalized; and 5,000 die. However, the FDA’s budget has not kept pace with rising costs of federal salaries and benefits, so the agency has had to eliminate hundreds of field inspector jobs along with scientific and technical positions. Hopefully, ConAgra can determine how the contamination occurred and put steps in place to keep it from happening again in the future.
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