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FDA Sets New Peanut Safety Guidelines

March 11, 2009

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new safety guidelines on Tuesday for companies that use peanut products.

The agency said it may seize products that test positive for salmonella bacteria, which can become heat-resistant in high-fat environments such as peanut butter.

The FDA guidance provides recommendations relevant to the recent salmonella outbreak, which the CDC said Tuesday has sickened 683 people in 46 states.

The outbreak, which was ultimately linked to foods containing peanut ingredients made by the now-bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America, continues to affect hundreds of customers and has resulted in the recall of 3,235 products.  

Illnesses are still being reported among people who ate recalled brands of peanut butter crackers, the CDC said.

The outbreak has renewed calls for an overhaul of U.S. food safety protocols. 

Improperly roasted peanuts used to make peanut paste or peanut butter can harbor salmonella bacteria, which when used in products like ice cream would be protected in a clump or cluster of fat, the FDA said. Furthermore, baking peanut butter into crackers and cookies might not be adequate to kill bacteria if the temperature is too low or is not kept at a constant level.

For these reasons, the FDA called on food manufacturers to only purchase peanut products “from suppliers with validated processes in place to adequately reduce the presence of Salmonella species.”

It further urged companies to conduct their own tests to check for salmonella in the products they make.

Seattle-based lawyer Bill Marler is representing 85 clients who were sickened from the tainted food.  He has filed six lawsuits in federal court against Peanut Corp; its owner, Stewart Parnell; and Kellogg Co, which used some of the recalled peanuts as ingredients.

Marler also has filed lawsuits against Ohio-based food distributor King Nut Cos individually, and plans to additional lawsuits by the end of the week, he said.

Marler called the FDA’s new recommendations common sense for any manufacturer that relies on outside suppliers.

“What the FDA does in this suggestion memo is to say make sure you are buying your parts from reputable people who have a plan,” Marler said during an interview with Reuters.

“These are all great ideas and all things that the industry should have known. Some did know. Some practiced it, but clearly a lot of people weren’t paying attention.”

Peanut Corp had a $12 million personal injury liability insurance policy, according to Marler, but that will not be adequate to cover the claims of those filing personal injury and wrongful death cases. The company also had a recall insurance policy worth roughly $7 million, Marler said.  Beyond that, the company was about $400,000 in debt.

Cornell University food science professor Bob Gravani told Reuters that many companies hire 3rd party inspectors to ensure the ingredients they purchase are safe.  However, it may be time to rethink this approach, he said.

“They took the inspection reports at face value. Companies should be double-checking to see that these audits are done,” he added.

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