An Updated Overview of the 2009 Salmonella Outbreak Investigation and Recalls

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.

Salmonella Outbreak Strain Found In PCA's Plainview Facility

As recalls continue following the discovery in early January 2009 of Salmonella Typhimurium in peanut butter produced by the Peanut Corporation of America (“PCA”) in Blakely, Georgia, the Texas Department of State Health Services (“TDSHS”) has now confirmed that Salmonella was also isolated from peanut meal produced at PCA’s Plainview, Texas facility. Doug McBride, a spokesman for the TDSHS, also confirmed that the sample was the same strain as the ongoing nationwide outbreak.

PCA voluntarily closed its Plainview facility weeks ago, after a private lab sample showed likely Salmonella contamination. Soon thereafter, Texas health officials ordered a recall of all products ever produced at the facility since its opening in March, 2005.

As we reported earlier, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had previously linked as many as six illnesses (that were associated with the national outbreak) to products distributed from PCA's Plainview facility. Additionally, an open container of Vitamin Cottage fresh ground peanut butter, made from raw materials produced at the Texas plant, had previously tested positive for the outbreak strain as well.

PCA also recently announced, in its latest Press Release, that because of continuing bankruptcy proceedings, it is no longer able to communicate with customers of recalled products. As a result, PCA customers should contact FDA Recall Coordinators regarding the proper disposition of any recalled products.

To date, over 2,600 consumer products have been affected by the continuing recalls. The national outbreak is believed to have sickened over 650 people in 45 states, and is suspected of contributing to as many as nine deaths. For the latest information, visit the FDA Peanut Butter Recall Website.  We, of course, will continue to report additional developments as well.

As Many As Six Outbreak Cases May Be Linked To PCA's Plainview Facility

As many as six cases associated with the ongoing Salmonella outbreak may have been traced to products produced at PCA's Plainview, Texas production facility. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, these individuals reported exposure to peanut butter distributed by the Lakewood-based Vitamin Cottage. In turn, an open container of Vitamin Cottage fresh ground peanut butter, made from peanuts distributed from the Texas facility, tested positive for the outbreak strain of Salmonella. Because the container was opened, however, it is not yet known if the peanut butter was potentially contaminated at the Texas facility, or if the product was cross-contaminated with the outbreak strain after distribution (learn how food-borne illnesses and outbreaks are tracked). Vitamin Cottage, in a Recall Notice, announced last week that it was recalling these products.

       

It is estimated that, since opening in March 2005, PCA's Plainview, Texas facility produced and distributed about one-third of the volume of products that were distributed from the company's Blakely, Georgia plant.  Although Salmonella has not yet been isolated from any non-opened products distributed from the Plainview facility, it has been reported that truck loads of raw peanuts from PCA's Georgia facility were previously sent to the Texas plant.  Currently, the FDA is still waiting on lab confirmation from numerous product and environmental samples taken from the facility determine the extent, if any, of potential contamination. 

In addition to operating plants in Georgia and Texas, PCA also operated a facility in Virginia. The FDA has completed a comprehensive inspection of the Virginia plant, and has reported that all lab results were negative for Salmonella. Although PCA closed this facility following its bankruptcy announcement on February 13, 2009, the FDA has not taken any action against the Virginia plant or any of the products produced there.

Recalls Spread To PCA's Plainview Facility

On Monday, February 9, 2009, the Plainview Peanut Co., a subsidiary of Peanut Corporation of America (“PCA”), voluntarily halted operations at its Plainview, Texas production facility pending the resolution of continuing governmental investigations.

On Thursday, February 12, 2009, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced, in a News Release, that it has ordered a recall of all products ever produced at the facility. The order followed the discovery of various sanitary issues identified in the plant.  The following day, on Friday, February 13, 2009, PCA formally declared bankruptcy.

The newest recall follows PCA's announcement, on January 28, 2009, that it was recalling all peanuts, peanut meal, peanut paste and peanut butter, distributed from it's Blakely, Georgia facility since January 2007.  PCA has now recalled all products, including peanut meal, granulated peanuts and dry roasted peanuts, produced and distributed from the Plainview, Texas facility since March 2005.   

Earlier, investigators reported that the Plainview facility had been operating for years without any inspections or licensure from the state. As the FBI continues its criminal probe into PCA's operations, we will continue to report new developments.