Saturday, April 12, 2008

Malt-O-Meal Salmonella Outbreak - An Update

In 1998, Malt-O-Meal Toasted Oats cereal sickened more than 200 individuals in 11 US states. That cereal, which was contaminated with Salmonella Agona, was manufactured in the company's Northfield, MN plant (Omaha World - Herald. Jun 5, 1998). The source of the contamination was never found.

On April 5th, Malt-O-Meal recalled all of its unsweetened Puffed Rice and unsweetened Puffed Wheat cereals after finding Salmonella in a sample of product that was manufactured on March 24th. The cereals were produced in the company's Northfield, MN facility and the contaminant was Salmonella Agona. The genetic fingerprint of this strain appears to be the same as the 1998 strain.

As of yesterday, state health officials, working with CDC and FDA investigators, have identified 21 individuals in 13 states who have been infected with Salmonella Agona as a result of eating the recalled Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat cereals. That total will almost certainly increase as the investigation continues.

This new outbreak raises some questions about Malt-O-Meal, its quality assurance programs, and FDA follow-up inspections as the Northfield plant in the years after the 1998 outbreak.
  • Was Malt-O-Meal sampling its production environment regularly for Salmonella? The Malt-O-Meal recall notice stated that Salmonella was found in a sample of product. Finding Salmonella in finished product is at least as difficult as finding a needle in an entire field of hay. If the microbe has been lurking in and around the plant for 10 years, it should have been found as a result of routine sampling of the plant environment (production lines, drains, air intake vents, etc.).
  • Has Malt-O-Meal ever found Salmonella in its Northfield production environment since it re-started operations after the 1998 outbreak? If so, what did management do about the finding?
  • What testing methods was Malt-O-Meal using to look for Salmonella? The choice of methods and sample size makes an enormous difference to the chances of finding the microbe.
  • Why has the recall been limited to just the Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat? Are these the only cereals manufactured in the Northfield plant?
  • How often and how thoroughly did FDA inspect the Northfield plant in the years after the 1998 outbreak?
I'll be watching for answers to these questions as further details become available.

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