In February 2007, ConAgra Inc. recalled peanut butter products in its Great Value and Peter Pan brands made since 2006. The recall was later extended to all such products made since October, 2004.
On April 5, 2007, ConAgra Foods Inc. revealed that the salmonella contamination in its recalled peanut butter products was created last August by a combination of water leakage and existing dormant bacteria at its Sylvester, Georgia, plant.
The following day, as a result of ConAgra's report, the FDA announced that it will likely upgrade peanut butter in the list of high-risk foods and will increase its inspections of peanut butter manufacturers. Dr. David Acheson, Chief Medical Officer of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said that the agency will almost certainly revise its list of high-risk foods to give peanut butter a higher placement than it has had. This in turn will lead to an increase in scheduled inspections of U.S. peanut butter manufacturing plants. "Up until this point, peanut butter has not been considered a high-risk food," Dr. Acheson said. "We now know peanut butter can be a vehicle for salmonella."
According to ConAgra, their Georgia plant experienced floods and water damage three times during the month of August, 2006. The plant's roof leaked during one rainstorm, and on two other occasions the sprinklers came on because of a fault in the plant's sprinkler system.
Although the plant was cleaned up after each event, the extra moisture in the facility created a friendly environment for the activation and growth of dormant salmonella bacteria already in the plant. The bacteria is thought to have been brought into the plant on raw peanuts and peanut dust.
Salmonella is routinely found in the soil in which peanuts are grown, but the process of roasting peanuts and further heating them above 165 degrees when they are ground to make peanut butter kills any salmonella bacteria. Following the mixing process, the peanut butter is squirted into containers, cooled and sealed. However, in ConAgra's Georgia plant, enough salmonella bacteria got into open containers of freshly made peanut butter to contaminate them before they were sealed.
ConAgra closed the Sylvester plant after the recall, and plans to reopen it in August after renovations aimed at creating better separation between the packaging area and the raw peanut storage area. It is also seeking to create better salmonella testing procedures.
Salmonella bacteria poisoning can cause stomach pain, chills and fever, nausea, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Symptoms can come on as early as 6 to 7 hours after ingesting the bacteria, or as long as 3 days later. The presence of salmonella in food is difficult to detect because it gives no off-odor or flavor. Illness caused by the bacteria can last up to two weeks, and much longer in vulnerable patients.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that millions of cases of salmonella poisoning occur worldwide each year, and the illness results in thousands of deaths. An increasing problem, according to the WHO, is the emergence since the early 1990's of strains of salmonella bacteria which are resistant to currently available anti-microbial agents. In recent years therefore both the incidence and severity of food poisoning caused by salmonella have increased.
Class Action Lawsuits
Since the recall, more than 425 people in 44 states have reported falling ill from eating peanut butter sold under these brand names. A number of class actions have been started throughout the United States.