As fallout continues from the peanut butter recalls originally announced in early January 2009 by the Peanut Corporation of America ("PCA"), some have wondered why the original Salmonella outbreak investigation took so long, and why recalls are still continuing. Unfortunately, most food-borne outbreaks take weeks (and, sometimes months) to identify because of the complexity of the issues involved. Incubation periods (the delay between food consumption and symptom onset) can range from hours to many weeks depending upon the pathogen at issue (Learn about common pathogen incubation periods). Once a pathogen has been isolated from a patient, additional time is needed to perform genetic testing on the samples to determine whether other cases are potentially linked. In turn, if numerous cases are identified and a food-borne illness investigation is initiated, additional days or weeks can be added as state and local health officials attempt to identify a single food (or other) source that is common to all the cases (Learn how food-borne illnesses and outbreaks are investigated and tracked).
This process, of course, becomes exceeding difficult in outbreaks involving common foods – or, as demonstrated in the Salmonella peanut butter outbreak, foods that used the same raw materials but do not appear on their face to have any link (i.e., ice cream, candies, granola bars and even dog biscuits). Thus, although the ongoing salmonella outbreak took significant time to identify, hats off to the CDC and FDA for being able to conclusively establish a common source. Click on the following link to download a PDF of the FDA’s Salmonella outbreak investigation timeline:
After illnesses are reported and confirmed, a common source is found, and recalls are initiated, investigators and industry must then work to remove all potentially implicated product from distribution. Here too, this process becomes extremely difficult when a recalled product is used as a raw material in countless common foods. In this outbreak, the process was confounded further because what began as a recall from a single facility (and involving product produced during a relatively limited period of time) quickly morphed into a recall involving years of production from multiple plants. Following the expended recall at PCA’s Blakely, Georgia production facility (involving all products produced at the plant since January 1, 2007) and the subsequent recall from PCA’s Plainview, Texas facility (involving all products produced at the facility since it opened in March 2005), FDA and industry alike quickly found themselves overwhelmed with the task of determining what downstream food products might potentially be implicated. Click on the link below to download a PDF of the FDA’s “simplified” PCA peanut product distribution flowchart:
As demonstrated by the FDA timeline and distribution chart, investigating the outbreak, and coordinating what will likely be remembered as one of the largest recalls in history, proved extremely complex. To date, more than 2,700 consumer products have been affected, and the recalls are continuing (search for affected food products using the FDA Recall Interface located on the left-hand column of our blog). Thus, despite the overwhelming frustration experienced by FDA, industry and consumers as a result of the ongoing outbreak, investigation and recalls, we once again express our gratitude to all of those working tirelessly to bring this matter to its closure.