Thursday, February 19, 2009

Salmonella Typhimurium Outbreak: The Latest Victims

February 19, 2009

This afternoon, CDC released its latest tally of Salmonella Typhimurium victims. The agency now has recorded 654 confirmed cases in 44 states. Twenty-three percent of the victims were hospitalized, and nine patients died.

This outbreak is still very much alive. The most recent victim became ill on February 3rd.

The number of known victims of this outbreak far exceeds the tally of 425 confirmed illnesses in the 2007 ConAgra Peter Pan Peanut Butter outbreak. But it is still well short of the 1,438 people who were infected with Salmonella SaintPaul as a result of consuming contaminated peppers last year. Two people died as a result of being infected with Salmonella SaintPaul; there were no fatalities in the ConAgra outbreak.

In addition to the individual victims, this outbreak also has taken a financial toll on customers of Peanut Corporation of America. Forward Foods, a maker of high protein snacks and meal replacement bars, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this week, according to a Newsday report.

Perhaps the most tragic victim of this outbreak, however, is consumer confidence in the truthfulness of statements made by food industry executives. MarlerBlog found archived versions of the PCA web site on the Web Archive service. Stewart Parnell, the President of Peanut Corporation of America, made the following statement on the Company's web site:

"Safety and Quality do make a difference. We have a remarkable Food-Safety record, developed in an environment committed to continuous training and state-of-the-art Food Safety techniques. From the corporate office to the plant floors, our comprehensive Quality Control program assists us in preventing error, reducing waste, meeting requirements, measuring results and satisfying our customers."

The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce SubCommittee, which held a hearing on the Salmonella outbreak on February 19th, received the ultimate proof of Stewart Parnell's commitment to Safety and Quality. 

  • J Leek Associates issued an analytical report dated June 23, 2008 addressed to Danny Kilgore of PCA. JLA reported a "Salmonella Positive" finding in a 375-gram sample of Lot #8168, "Granulated"
  • Deibel Laboratories issued an analytical report dated June 23, 2008 addressed to Danny Kilgore of PCA. Deibel reported a "Salmonella Negative" finding in a 375-gram sample of Lot #8168, "Gran"
  • Peanut Corporation of America issued a Certificate of Analysis for Lot #8168 dated June 23, 2008. PCA reported Lot #8168 as "Salmonella Negative in a 375-gram sample. The report was signed by Danny Kilgore, using a pre-printed signature.

Salmonella contamination in a solid food is highly variable in distribution. It is not unusual for the microbe to be found in "pockets of contamination" rather than to be uniformly spread throughout a production batch. It is a cardinal rule of microbiological quality assurance that a Salmonella-positive result – if the test has been conducted with proper attention to preventing contamination in the lab – cannot be annulled by a Salmonella-negative result obtained on the same batch.

Stewart Parnell was wise to "take the fifth" during his appearance before the House SubCommittee. At least he avoided a charge of perjury.

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