Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Get Your Peanuts Here....or not

First published in the Montague Reporter, Montague, MA

Lately, I’ve been craving peanut butter. Maybe it’s because my husband finished off the jar a week or so ago, and didn’t put it on the list (grrrr,) or maybe it’s because I can’t pick up a newspaper without reading about the great peanut butter recall. Although you’d think that hearing it linked with Salmonella as it so often is these days would be enough to scare me away, who’s to reason with a craving?

Plunking a jar of Teddy All Natural peanut butter onto the check-out belt at Stop & Shop, I felt a little sheepish. Was anyone wondering if I’d been in a news blackout for the past few weeks? Who in their right mind would be buying peanut butter when peanut products are the stars of the Federal Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) largest food recall ever? Certainly not Robert Humphrey, the retired insurance executive from Georgia, who according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution has given up all peanut products (normally a mainstay of his diet.) And Humphrey isn’t alone. In Houston schools pulled all peanutty products from vending machines and menus, as did school districts in Michigan, Connecticut and California among others. While I couldn’t find any evidence of Baystate districts jumping on the ban-wagon, according to Jim Loynd, Food Service Director for Gill-Montague district, “All of our elementary schools are peanut free. At the middle school and high school building we’ve checked to make sure we don’t have products affected by recall. The only peanut butter products we have are from the USDA commodities program,” which, according to their web site did not purchase any recalled peanut butter. Amidst all the furor, the FDA asserts that “major national brands of jarred peanut butter found in grocery stores are not affected by the [Peanut Corporation of America] recall,” though they caution that some “boutique brands” of peanut butter may be subject to recall.

Salmonella typhimurium isn’t a bug to be trifled with. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported over five hundred cases of illness from 43 states since September, with a 22% hospitalization rate. Eight deaths have tentatively been linked to the outbreak. Like most bacteria that live or infect our guts, Salmonella typhimurium, are facultative anaerobic bacteria. That means that they grow and thrive with or without oxygen. They’re versatile, unlike one of my favorites, Clostridium botulinum, a strict anaerobe for which oxygen is toxic. When present in an airtight can, for example, Clostridium may produce botulinum toxin, one of the most potent toxins known. Fortunately for us, it not only produces toxin but also gaseous metabolic byproducts – enough to cause bulging lids in canned goods, cluing us in to its deadly presence. Last year at Stop&Shop I picked up a nice toxic can of tuna.

Salmonella infections, caused by ingesting contaminated foods like undercooked chicken, eggs, and more recently tomatoes are the most frequently reported food-related infections in the U.S. While some studies indicate upwards of 1 million little buggers are required for one to experience acute onset of fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea, some outbreaks may be caused by just a few hundred bugs. This “infectious dose” varies based on a number of factors including age and immunity of the host, and the food matrix. According to the USDA, foods high in fat, (like peanut butter,) may protect the bacteria from harsh conditions in our guts. In this ongoing FDA case, contaminated peanut products have been linked to a single peanut processing plant owned by the Peanut Corporation of America’s (PCA) Blakely, Georgia plant, now the focus of a criminal investigation.

In the largest food recall to date, over 400 items and 31 million pounds of peanut product have been removed from store and institution shelves. The recall ranges from Cliff Bars and Luna bars that contain peanut butter to Trader Ming's (AKA Trader Joe’s) Spicy Kung Pao Chicken, Big Y Sundae Cones and Famous Amos Soft Batch Peanut Butter cookies. But so far, the only tubs of actual peanut butter recalled is King Nut, a brand distributed only through food services.

Wondering about my Teddy peanut butter, I found the American Peanut Council’s web page which lists links to dozens of company sites whose products have not (yet) been recalled, including the Leavitt Corporation of Everett, MA, who produces Teddy brand. Teddy, they say, is clean. According to Leavitt’s site, they’ve never used PCA products, and don’t use peanut products from outside the company. While Teddy was clean, cruising the FDA recall site I found reason to pitch the Keebler Toast & Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers that had been sitting in the pantry since last spring.

If you’ve got peanut products in your house, I’d suggest taking a gander at the FDA site. Of course if you’re in doubt you’d do best to throw it out, especially when President Obama has just promised a complete review of FDA itself.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, it’s been a week since we got the Teddy, and so far so good.