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Salmonella in Peanut Butter Traced to Leak

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Salmonella in Peanut Butter Traced to Leak--
OMAHA, Neb. (April 5) - ConAgra Foods said Thursday that moisture from a leaky roof and faulty sprinkler in its Georgia peanut butter plant last August allowed salmonella bacteria to infect its finished product and later sicken more than 400 people nationwide.
The Omaha-based company released details of its nearly two-month-long investigation and explained what its plans to ensure that Peter Pan peanut butter is safe when it returns to stores in mid-July.

"Consumer safety and health is our top priority," ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said. "We plan to do our best to regain consumer trust once Peter Pan returns to stores."

Childs said the company traced the salmonella outbreak to three incidents in its Sylvester, Ga., plant last August.

The plant's roof leaked during a rainstorm and the sprinkler system went off twice because of a faulty sprinkler, which was repaired.

The moisture from those three incidents mixed with dormant salmonella bacteria in the plant that Childs said likely came from raw peanuts and peanut dust.

She said the plant was cleaned thoroughly after the roof leak and sprinkler incidents, but somehow the salmonella remained and came in contact with peanut butter before it was packaged.

ConAgra recalled all its peanut butter in February after federal health officials linked it to cases of salmonella infection. At least 425 people in 44 states were sickened, and numerous lawsuits have been filed against the company.

The recall covered all Peter Pan peanut butter and all Great Value peanut butter made at the Sylvester plant since October 2004. That plant is ConAgra's only peanut butter plant.

The company isn't sure exactly how the salmonella got into the peanut butter, but Childs said it was linked to the moisture.

"At some point, the salmonella that was activated came in contact with finished peanut butter," Childs said.

Peanuts grow underground and salmonella is present in the dirt, but generally any bacteria are killed when raw peanuts are roasted. When making peanut butter, the nuts are again heated - above the salmonella-killing temperature of 165 degrees - as they are ground into a paste and mixed with other ingredients before being squirted into jars and quickly sealed.

Experts had speculated that the point in the process where salmonella could be introduced and survive would be as the product cools down, is placed in the jars and then sealed. At most plants, those steps take just minutes.

The company plans to redesign the layout of the Sylvester plant, so there will be greater separation between raw peanuts and the finished product, Childs said. And the plant will receive a new roof.

ConAgra also will develop a new testing procedure for peanut butter, and the company has recruited Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, to lead an advisory committee that will help ConAgra improve procedures at all its plants.

In addition to peanut butter, ConAgra has many brand-name lines, such as Healthy Choice, Chef Boyardee and Orville Redenbacher.

ConAgra plans to reopen its Sylvester plant in early August, but the details of the renovations there are still being finalized.

The Sylvester plant's roughly 100 workers have been paid to do maintenance work since the recall shut down production there. Childs said it's not yet clear how the renovations will affect those workers.

Childs said she didn't know how much the changes at the plant would cost, but the renovation costs would be in addition to the $50 million to $60 million cost of the recall company officials had already announced.

While renovations are being done in Sylvester, Childs said Peter Pan would be made at another company's manufacturing plant. She declined to identify that manufacturing partner and said ConAgra had not decided whether that plant will continue making Peter Pan after its Sylvester plant reopens.

Childs said ConAgra made sure the other company's plant met its safety and quality standards.

ConAgra hopes its peanut butter will return to pre-recall levels of about $150 million in annual sales, Childs said. .
Entry #1,065

Comments

1.
LOTTOMIKEComment by LOTTOMIKE - April 6, 2007, 7:23 pm
The Food and Drug Administration said Friday it will increase the frequency of investigations at plants that make peanut butter and similar products, saying this year's salmonella outbreak showed peanut butter is riskier than health officials had thought.

All Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter that ConAgra Foods Inc. made at its Sylvester, Ga., plant was recalled in February after health officials linked the product to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 400 people nationwide.

"Up until this point, peanut butter has not been considered a high-risk food," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "We now know peanut butter can be a vehicle for salmonella."

Acheson said peanut butter will almost certainly move up on the FDA's list of high-risk foods, and the agency bases its inspection schedule on the relative risk of foods. He said peanut butter is not likely to knock fresh produce off the top of that list, because the risks are highest with foods that don't get cooked later.

For example, three people died last year and more than 200 became sick after eating spinach tainted with E. coli. And Taco Bell blames lettuce contaminated with E. coli for sickening more than 70 people last fall.

"For anybody who makes peanut butter, we've now learned that if there's salmonella in the environment there could be a problem," Acheson said.

That's why Acheson said salmonella infections could happen at other peanut butter plants, but he believes the industry has been paying attention.

"I would be pretty certain that every other peanut butter producer is having the same thought we are and is paying a lot of attention to it to make sure that it doesn't happen," he said.

Officials at Unilever, the company that makes Skippy peanut butter, say they have been monitoring the FDA investigation at ConAgra's plant.

"While we do have very strict manufacturing and supply chain protocols in place, we constantly review them to ensure consumer safety," Unilever spokeswoman Anita Larsen said.

Acheson said the basic process used at all peanut butter plants is similar. They all bring raw peanuts in, roast and grind them, mix and blend them, and put the product in bottles or cans.

"It's a call to all of us to be thinking about if it can happen in the ConAgra plant in Georgia, why couldn't it happen in some other peanut butter plant? And I think the answer is it could," Acheson said.

The explanation for the salmonella outbreak ConAgra officials offered Thursday fits with what the FDA found, Acheson said, but the government investigation has not been completed.

FDA officials will decide whether to pursue any sanctions against ConAgra after the investigation, Acheson said.

"It doesn't automatically follow that a company, just because they had a recalled product that made people sick, did anything wrong that they could have done differently and did it deliberately," Acheson said.

ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said Thursday the company traced the salmonella outbreak to three problems at its Sylvester, Ga., plant last August.

The plant's roof leaked during a rainstorm, and the sprinkler system went off twice because of a faulty sprinkler, which was repaired.

The moisture from those three events mixed with dormant salmonella bacteria in the plant that Childs said likely came from raw peanuts and peanut dust.

The plant was cleaned thoroughly after the roof leak and sprinkler problem, but the salmonella remained and somehow came in contact with peanut butter before it was packaged, she said.

The FDA last inspected the ConAgra plant in 2005 and did not find any problems.

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