A massive outbreak of Salmonella that stretched from 2008-2009 killed 9 people and sickened 714 across 46 states.
It prompted one of the largest food recalls in United States history.
Peanuts – and dishonest company officials.
The outbreak was linked to Peanut Corp. of America, a plant in Georgia. Food and Drug Administration inspectors visited the plant on Jan. 9, 2009, after salmonella-tainted peanut butter was traced to the factory.
Now the company’s former owner, Stewart Parnell, is standing trial in U.S. District Court in a rare instance of corporate officers and workers being prosecuted in a food poisoning case. Two other company officials are also facing charges.
From the AP:
Bob Neligan, an FDA food safety investigator, told the jury Thursday the plant’s manager told inspectors during their first day at the plant that the only time salmonella had been detected during routine lab tests on the company’s products had turned out to be a false positive. The same manager, Samuel Lightsey, changed his story a few days later, he said.
“It was finally on day five that Mr. Lightsey revealed they had had three positives for salmonella, and that would have been in the last year or so,” Neligan said. “We had continuously asked that from day one.”
By the end of January, the FDA issued a mandatory order to force the company to turn over two years of records. The findings were disturbing: lab tests had confirmed Salmonella in 12 lots of ground peanuts, peanut paste and peanut butter produced at the plant since 2007.
Neligan said most companies linked to food-borne illnesses voluntarily “hand over as many records as they can to resolve the issue quickly.”
Not so, in this case. And that’s why three people associated with the company are facing criminal charges:
The 76-count indictment charged Parnell and his brother Michael Parnell, a food broker, with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead. Stewart Parnell and the Georgia plant’s quality-assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, were also charged with obstruction of justice.
The conspiracy and obstruction charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Janet Gray is one of the FDA inspectors who investigated the plant. On Wednesday, she told jurors “I felt the firm was not fit to produce products for human consumption.” The bad conditions found in the plant included mold, roaches, a leaky roof, and dirty equipment. Peanut producers use roasters to kill any Salmonella that might be lingering on raw peanuts, but the process requires roasting at a high enough temperature for a long enough time. Gray discovered that Peanut Corp. was not following the correct protocol – instead of monitoring the roasting process, they simply relied on the peanuts turning a certain color.
The indictment included quotes from emails prosecutors said were from the defendants. In a 2007 email, an employee notified Parnell that containers of peanut meal were covered in dust and rat feces, Parnell responded with “Clean ’em all up and ship them.”
In a 2008 email, Parnell scolded employees for wasting peanuts, saying, “These are not peanuts you are throwing away every day, it is money, it is money.”
Peanut Corp of America went bankrupt and closed in 2009.
But, Peanut Corp isn’t the first company to be linked to an outbreak, and Salmonella is a bacterium that really digs peanuts…so how can you avoid an encounter with the bug?
First, here’s some information on what the bacterium is and what happens during an infection.
What IS Salmonella, anyway?
Infection with Salmonella bacteria is called salmonellosis. According to the CDC, every year, Salmonella is estimated to cause about 1.2 million illnesses in the United States, with about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths. Most people inflicted with the illness develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. Usually the duration is 4 to 7 days, and most recover without treatment. In some people, the illness becomes serious, requiring hospitalization and antibiotic treatment to prevent the infection from spreading from the intestines to the bloodstream.
As with almost any infection, risks of complications and death are higher in the elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems. A small number of people suffer long-term reactive arthritis that can last for months or years, and can develop into chronic arthritis.
So, how can you avoid infection with Salmonella?
Roasting peanuts is the only known way to kill the bacteria if it is present on raw peanuts. It’s a pretty tough bug, and if peanut products are contaminated AFTER roasting, Salmonella will survive – sometimes, for many months, especially if it is in peanut butter because it really favors the high fat content.
If you buy peanut products that are produced by food companies and want to avoid infection with Salmonella, you can watch for recalls for the brands you choose and hope that there never is a problem.
Or, you can take matters into your own hands, and make your own peanut butter at home.
First, it is important to remember that peanuts can pick up Salmonella AFTER roasting, so even if you purchase dry-roasted peanuts to make homemade peanut butter, there is a slight risk the nuts themselves can be – or become – contaminated. How? Well, one way is improper handling of the peanuts after roasting at the processing facility.
Another way is through improper handling in YOUR kitchen. Peanuts aren’t the only food that can harbor Salmonella (so can poultry, eggs, meat, alfalfa sprouts, melons, and other fruits and vegetables). Avoid cross-contamination by ensuring work surfaces, dishes, and utensils are clean.
Oh, and having clean hands helps too.
Side note: Yes, peanuts do tend to be susceptible to contamination with aflatoxin, a naturally-occurring mycotoxin that is produced by two different types of mold – Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus.
It’s definitely yucky stuff and probably can’t be entirely avoided, but you CAN reduce how much gets into your diet by following these tips from The Wellness Blog:
Buy (and Eat) Selectively: Always avoid eating nuts that look moldy, discolored or shriveled. Also, note that aflatoxin can be found in spices, coffee, cocoa, dried fruit, figs and tree nuts. Buy from companies that you trust and who take aflatoxin contamination seriously. For example, MaraNatha asserts that every one of their nut butters is virtually aflatoxin free.
Don’t Buy in Bulk or DIY: Do-it-yourself nut butters found in health food stores typically have higher levels of aflatoxin, as these nuts are stored in the grinding chamber for weeks or months. Avoid bulk nuts for the same reason.
Supply the Antidote: A number of foods have been found to decrease the cancer-causing effects of aflatoxin. These include Apiaceous vegetables (carrots, celery, parsnips, and parsley), chlorophyll (found in green vegetables, spirulina and chlorella), garlic and onions. Be sure to include these in your diet.
Roasting peanuts can reduce aflatoxin. Storing peanut butter in the refrigerator can help stop it from growing, as aflatoxin isn’t fond of cold, dry environments.
If you really want to ensure that the peanuts you use are roasted at the proper temperature and duration to kill any Salmonella that may be present (and kill some or all of the aflatoxin that may be there as well), you can purchase raw or blanched peanuts and roast them yourself. Doing so is easy – you simply spread the peanuts on a baking sheet (in a single layer) and roast them in your oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice.
If you bought peanuts with skins, you’ll need to remove them prior to making your peanut butter. To do this, roll them in your hands (after the peanuts have cooled, of course!).
Now you are ready to make your peanut butter. I use the Vitamix 5200 Blender (and have done so for about 14 years) and find it works very well – and fast. If you don’t have a Vitamix, any blender or food processor will do.
Simply pour your roasted peanuts into your blender or food processor, turn it on, and let it go. How long you blend the peanuts will depend on how large your batch is and how smooth you like your peanut butter. Add salt to taste after your peanut butter has reached your desired consistency. Some people like to add a little oil to their nut butters, but I’ve never found it necessary.
Be patient with the blending process. It can take anywhere from two to twenty minutes, depending on the machine you are using and the size of the batch you are making.
Store your peanut butter in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. It should last for about a month or two…unless you or someone in your family has a peanut butter addiction. You should be able to tell if it goes rancid (but who can keep fresh PB around long enough for it to go bad, seriously?) because it will smell bad and may look funny…and probably won’t taste great, either.