Sunday, February 15, 2009


I did something today that I have been meaning to do - and putting off - ever since this peanut thing started (now by the latest count with over 500 people officially sickened in 44 states and 8 (or 9) dead. I started digging around to see what other outbreaks there had been in the U.S. food supply that were associated with peanut butter or products containing peanut butter or peanut paste.

I recalled that there had been one in early 2007 in Peter Pan and Great Value Peanut Butter. But I was suprised to find that during this one actually 628 cases of related illness had been officially confirmed in 47 states. The number of deaths appears to be in dispute. The culprit there was Salmonella bacteria as well, with a slightly different DNA.

And then I read about all these other little incidents - 'micro alerts' or whatever you want to call them, going back to the early 1970's when peanut butter or products became contaminated but was dealt with quietly by the company itself,without even alerting government. The more you dig, the more you find. In fact, in one case all the peanut butter was quietly pulled back by the company and literally dug underground. Good fertilizer?

It seems that many of these 'incidents' had two features in common: damp conditions in the plant, and storage of the prepared product near to either raw peanuts or other contaminated food items.

Ugh, and just as I was really beginning to love peanut butter. My favorite sandwich: whole wheat bread with peanut butter, sliced banana on top. And I had finally found a great peanut butter cookie I could make in 5 minutes and pop it in the oven for a super quick bake...... Life is cruel.


Monday, February 2, 2009


Since the peanut product contamination incident hit the media, there has been a lot of talk about what needs to be done to fix America's food supply. "The safest food supply in the world?" You have to be kidding. Whoever said that (and I forget which bureaucrat it was) has to be eating his words...and hopefully getting indigestion.

Actually, in many ways we are way behind most of the European countries and even some Asian ones in terms of food safety. Stricter legislation is hard to pass because of the power of the food industry coupled with inadequate government resources. But this is not the only reason we are lagging.

One of the weaknesses in our system is that responsibility for the safety of our food is divided up among a number of agencies. Depends how you count it: 3 main ones, maybe 12 at the next level, and if you really want to be comprehensive, you can get to 21.

The division of responsibility between the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is particularly strange and leads to some totally irrational situations in practice and shifting of blame when things go wrong and the public is up in arms. Some of this is happening during this peanut butter and product outbreak. It was also obvious during the 2007 tomato/not tomato contamination. Several European countries like France and even Canada realized that to do the job properly, you had to have a single agency in charge. We still haven't got there.

And of course, if you don't have enough resources, you can't do the job. Take the ongoing peanut contamination and safety at the plant where it all started. One government inspector was responsible for some widely scattered 260 facilities, one of which was the Peanut Corporation of America plant. And don't think that food safety inspectors spend all day every day running around inspecting. Or, that all you have to do for a thorough inspection is to take a two minute look-see about. It takes more - and, a thorough inspection takes time.

Most people would agree that it is even worse with our imported foods, where some of the plants are in developing countries, in remote areas, with terrible road access. Not to mention the fact that salaries are low and the bakshish is tempting. I've spent a lot of my life working in countries where much of U.S. food comes from these days, and I know how things work.

So where do we go from here? President Obama - I know you have your hands full right now, and this is not what you needed, but you did make a promise. For starters, there was that Food-Borne Illness and Surveillance Response Act you introduced in July, 2008 to make our food safer. To quote, your words were: "We must do everything we can to ensure that our families don't get sick from the foods they eat." On...on...

But remember, that is just the beginning.


UPDATE: We now have the updated and improved legislation (as of 2010), but not enough money to do the job properly. One without the other doesn't do much good. I guess we'll have to wait until...what? The end of the recession?

Sunday, February 1, 2009


As I expected, this peanut related contamination of our food supply is growing and growing, expanding every way: more confirmed cases of illness, more deaths, a wider time frame for risky foods, and many, many more possible suspect products. Yesterday there were some 32 new alerts in my mailbox. It's Sunday today, but I bet there will be another bunch today. It's no longer just peanut paste and bulk shipments of peanut butter to institutions, but also peanuts themselves and wonderful things like trail mixes.

Now that it has got to the peanuts, I am beginning to wonder if the source of the contamination (or, sources) is not limited to the Peanut Corporation of America facilities. I would not be the least surprised if it also pops up elsewhere. Maybe even at the peanut grower level. Jimmy Carter - are you involved?

As for recalling hundreds of peanut products going all the way back to January 1, 2007 - let's face it, that is a bit unrealistic. I bet we have already eaten most of it.

Just to be safe I am throwing out any item I have bought that contains peanuts. What is considered safe today, will probably be unsafe tomorrow. By the way, I found that my favorite pecan oatmeal bars also contain peanut paste. So much for the label.

I wonder if they have peanut futures on the commodities exchange? Maybe it isn't too late to sell some calls or buy some puts, so I could make some money for a change.

Bon appetit!