WEDNESDAY, Aug. 17 (HealthDay News) -- A look back at the
tainted-peanut butter salmonella outbreak of 2008-2009 is giving
scientists valuable lessons on how to minimize deadly onslaughts of
foodborne illness in the future.
That outbreak, which caused 714 illnesses and nine deaths across
46 states, was linked to infection with
Salmonella Typhimurium from tainted peanut butter and peanut
butter paste products.
Researchers who were on the frontlines of that investigation
said the experience may help them get a better handle on the
ongoing ground-turkey outbreak, which has sickened more than 100
people in over 30 states.
"There were real challenges posed with peanut butter because it served as ingredients in many foods with different distribution channels," said Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
"We had to look at invoices for those foods to help identify the food item and provide rapid trace back to the manufacturer," she said. State and local officials also conducted interviews with people who fell ill, she said.
Ground-turkey, like peanut butter, is an ingredient in many
processed foods, including sauces. Contamination can occur during
different stages of production, which complicates detection.
Investigators have traced the recent illnesses to infection with
Salmonella Heidelberg found in some ground-turkey made by
The 2008-2009 outbreak fueled a massive recall of peanut butter
products, some of which were precautionary. The source was traced
back to two Peanut Corp. of America processing plants in Georgia
and Texas. Inspections revealed rats, insects, roaches, standing
water and roof leaks inside the plants. This company filed for
bankruptcy amid fallout from the outbreak.
Writing in the Aug. 18 issue of the
New England Journal of Medicine, Behravesh and colleagues said tainted peanuts and peanut butter products probably caused many more consumers to become ill than was reported at the time.
"For every case that is lab-confirmed, there are others that didn't go to the doctor or get stool tested. It likely caused thousands of illnesses," said Behravesh.
That outbreak may have had a silver lining, though, in that
national attention was redirected toward food safety and prevention
of foodborne illnesses. In March 2009, the President's Food Safety
Working Group was created, and earlier this year the Food Safety
Modernization Act was enacted. The law gives the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration unprecedented power to order food recalls and insist
that U.S. and foreign food suppliers develop food-safety plans, the
"What is important with all of this is to improve outbreak responses and detection, identify sick people quickly, interview them more quickly and identify foods causing outbreaks more quickly," Behravesh said.
But these improvements and changes do not take the onus away
from individuals, she said. Following safe food-handling
precautions when cooking meats and avoiding cross-contamination in
the kitchen are still important ways to lower risk of foodborne
Salmonella, the most common foodborne illness in the United States, include fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and headache.
Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and
immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center, said if
he had to grade the United States on how it handled the peanut
butter outbreak, he would give a C-plus. "I wouldn't give a B but
we are bordering on a B," he said.
The room for improvement lies in preventing outbreaks, he said.
"We are fairly good in terms of having a mechanism in place to
track outbreaks, close factories and warn the public, but we are
not that good at prevention and that is what we have to work on,"
Prevention starts with cutting down on the antibiotics used in
agriculture, including plants and meats, he said. This practice has
given rise to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria identified
in some of these outbreaks.
"In the U.S., we use 25 million pounds of antibiotics in agriculture [a year] and only 3 million pounds to treat disease," he said. "We can identify a problem after it happens, but until we eliminate the use of antibiotics in the agriculture industry, this country will be waylaid with outbreaks," he said.
For more about food safety, visit the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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