More and more companies are recalling products containing peanuts since the government linked peanuts to an outbreak of salmonella. More than 125 products have been pulled from shelves amid an outbreak that so far has been tied to nearly 500 illnesses in 43 states.
Looking back, the connection between the outbreak and peanuts seems obvious. Months ago, however, it was anything but clear.
Many things can cause salmonella infection, including meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables and contaminated water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are 1.4 million salmonella infections a year in the U.S. Salmonella bacteria can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and fever. The bacteria are common in the environment — bad food handling or bad luck puts them in the path of a human being.
Local or state health officials generally investigate small outbreaks of salmonella. In the case of the current peanut outbreak, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration got involved because of something called PulseNet.
PulseNet is a CDC project that collects reports of salmonella infections and catalogs the exact type of salmonella bacterium — there are more than 2,000 — that is to blame. Technicians look through the salmonella "fingerprints" to see if the same bacterium is showing up in many states.
"When they notice an unusual cluster, they call me," says Dr. Ian Williams, who heads the CDC effort. "We try to determine if those people have something in common."
The CDC noticed that going back to last September, two closely related bacteria kept showing up. Many of the people who had gotten ill were in nursing homes or had eaten at schools or other institutions. And many had eaten peanut butter.
Then the state health department in Minnesota found salmonella in a large vat of King Nut peanut butter, made at the Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Blakely, Ga. Salmonella was detected during an inspection of the plant. Further investigation showed that many of the people who had gotten ill had eaten products made with King Nut peanut butter or peanut paste. That sparked a series of recalls from companies that make peanut butter cookies, crackers, cakes, even peanut-flavored dog biscuits. The Peanut Corporation of America recalled all products made at the Blakely plant, and has shut the plant down.
It's not the first time peanuts have been connected to salmonella. A 2007 outbreak was caused by Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butters. The current outbreak is not associated with peanut butter sold in retail stores.
It will take a while to know if the current outbreak is over. "A person who gets sick today won't be reported to the CDC for two or three weeks," says Williams. "We're still hearing of cases every day. It's too early to say we're past the peak."
Meanwhile, the advice from the Food and Drug Administration remains the same. Peanut butter sold in retail stores is fine. But people should avoid eating products that contain peanuts unless they can be sure those products were not made with peanut butter or peanut paste from the plant in Blakely. The list of recalled products can be found on the FDA's Web site.