The reputation of peanut butter, for many years a staple of children's sandwiches and many other food products, has taken a serious beating. Calorie count, sugar content and peanut allergies have reduced its popularity in the years since choosy moms began to choose Jif, but right now, that is the least of peanut's problems.
Most recently, salmonella contamination from one plant in Georgia has sickened 19,000 people and killed eight. A similar contamination problem occurred at a different plant, owned by a different company, in 2006-07, although far fewer illnesses resulted. The plants are 70 miles apart. Consumers are justified in wondering why food inspectors, after experiencing contamination in one plant, were not more vigilant at nearby facilities.
The Peanut Corp. of America plant now in the news definitely had problems. In the words of The New York Times, "Raw peanuts were stored next to the finished peanut butter. The roaster was not calibrated to kill deadly germs. Dispirited workers on minimum wage, supplied by temp agencies, donned their uniforms at home, potentially dragging contaminants into the plant, which also had rodents." Salmonella, notably, is commonly found in feces.
The roof leaked, providing a habitat for a microbe that thrives in moist conditions. Other news sources have mentioned roaches and mold. None of that is acceptable.
But what may surprise consumers most is the gap between what they think the government is doing to protect the safety of their food and what is actually happening. For example, inspectors do not require the peanut industry to inform anyone of salmonella contamination in plants. Problems at the Con-Agra plant, implicated in the 2006-07 outbreak, were first revealed by a whistleblower in 2004, but the Food and Drug Administration did not demand lab-test records until three years later - after hundreds of people grew ill. Advance notice of inspections routinely has been given.
ConAgra, stung by recalls and the loss of consumer confidence in its peanut products, did clean up its act, but that was as far as the cleanup went. Other peanut processors declined to incur such expenses unless they were forced, either by regulators or by another contamination scandal, such as the one now occurring. According to the Times, neither federal nor state regulators imposed stricter standards on other plants, nor did they even identify common problems.
And neither did they immediately close the plant and halt consumer sales of products with raw ingredients that originated there (many of which later were used in brand-name products completed by other manufacturers, many of which apparently relied on processors' own claims about quality). The recall began slowly and may not yet have reached its full scope. It now includes bulk peanut butter distributed to schools, military bases and nursing homes.
"It's easy to fall into the trap of seeing our food safety problems as coming from other countries," a Centers for Disease Control official told the Times, which mentioned China's problems with melamine-contaminated milk.
Yet much of this country's food is grown and processed domestically. Consumers have a right to expect that food, and all that is imported, to be safe for consumption.
If that is not going to be the case - if, for example, the government declines to be responsible for food safety, for reasons of budget or small-government ideology - consumers need to know that. Unless that happens, inspectors and regulatory agencies need to do their jobs better. This latest salmonella problem was not one that was difficult to identify or even to foresee. Such a problem already had occurred once, and the real scandal is that no one moved to prevent it from happening elsewhere.