Speaking to an over-flow crowd at the recent South Carolina Peanut Growers annual meeting, Marie Fenn, managing director of the National Peanut Board said, the current salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter began in Minnesota in a nursing home facility in which salmonella was found in an open container of peanut butter.

The Food and Drug Administration investigation actually began in September of 2008. The first FDA report was issued in early January. This report indicated the investigation was for peanut butter used in institutions. This investigation was started in response to the Minnesota nursing home case.

Subsequently, as of the first of February, over 500 cases of salmonella poisoning have been linked to contaminated peanut butter from products processed at the Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, Ga. plant.

The FDA and other state agencies began testing products from that facility. Subsequently, testing by the Connecticut Health Department identified a non-opened package of peanut butter crackers that contained salmonella, which included peanut paste from the same Blakely, Ga. plant.

The FDA issued their 483, or final report on Jan. 28. The FDA concluded this particular outbreak came from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). The report indicates PCA did some internal testing as far back as 2007 and found salmonella hits in their products.

According to the FDA, the company ignored the poor manufacturing practices and shipped product across the state line. The company may be facing public safety violations related to interstate commerce.

“If there is good news from the recent salmonella outbreak, it’s that Americans should feel perfectly safe in eating peanut butter from grocery stores. There has been absolutely no link between commercially available peanut butter and salmonella poisoning in the current FDA investigation,” Fenn says.

She points out that more than 99.9 percent of all U.S. peanut products did NOT come from Peanut Corporation of America. Even if all the cases of illness and the deaths linked to salmonella poisoning prove to be from peanut butter, there is no link between this .01 percent and the vast majority of safe and healthy peanut products on the grocery shelves across America.

There remain some questions concerning the scope of the current salmonella outbreak. The exact fingerprint of the salmonella found in the Georgia plant does not match the strain of salmonella found in the Connecticut case.

In the Minnesota nursing home case, there is some concern as to how long the jar of peanut butter in question was left open, and whether the salmonella came from the peanut butter or disease-causing organisms formed from long-term exposure to outside sources of infection.

Fenn says people should err on the side of caution. “We know over 500 people got sick across 43 states and the FDA says salmonella may be a partial cause of the death of as many as eight cases.

It is a very sad and unfortunate situation for the people who were affected. It also casts a negative cloud over the fine manufacturers of peanut products who work diligently to provide consumers with safe, wholesome and healthy peanut products,” she concludes.

“A few years back peanut farmers voted themselves into a national peanut check-off program. As a result a strong and consistent program of research, education and promotion to help America understand what a fine crop U.S. peanut growers produce.

“All through this salmonella crisis, the media has had access to information provided by these check-off funds, and as a result we have had many positive stories about peanuts generated by the unfortunate disease outbreak,” Fenn says.

From the growers standpoint the FDA salmonella report could not have come at a worse time. Peanut contracts have not been issued and growers are being forced to push back cropping plans.

Buyers are in a similar wait-and-see mode says Tyron Spearman who heads the Peanut Buying Point Association. “The salmonella outbreak and subsequent consumer reaction has stalled the entire peanut industry,” says Spearman.

“How quick groups like the National Peanut Board and state grower associations can regain consumer confidence in peanut butter will be a good indicator of what kind of year we will have this year and next,” Fenn says.

Compared to the media frenzy in tomatoes in the summer of 2008, the peanut industry has done a magnificent job of keeping the problem focused on one small company and one specific group of products. Media outlets ran such headlines as “killer tomatoes source of salmonella deaths” without much attention to the facts.

In the peanut salmonella outbreak government agencies, the FDA in particular, have been much more reticent to make dramatic claims and have worked with the peanut industry to try and help American consumers understand the facts related to the outbreak.

“Americans have long had a love affair with peanut butter. They want peanut butter and other peanut products in the marketplace. The salmonella outbreak will have a short-term negative effect on the industry, but I am confident we can bounce back stronger than ever,” Fenn says.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com