Schools, disaster victims may have gotten tainted peanut butter

The peanut butter, potentially contaminated with salmonella, was included in emergency meal kits sent to Kentucky ice storm victims, and sold to the federal government for a free lunch program.

February 06, 2009|Times Wire Services

Peanut butter potentially contaminated with salmonella bacteria was included in school lunch programs and emergency meal kits sent to Kentucky after last week's ice storm, officials said Thursday.

Nearly 168,000 emergency meal kits sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the state had been recalled more than two weeks earlier because some contained peanut butter that could have been contaminated, federal officials told the Associated Press.

And the Washington Post reported that Peanut Corp. of America sold 32 truckloads of roasted peanuts and peanut butter to the federal government for a free lunch program for poor children even as the company's internal tests showed its products were contaminated with salmonella.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture abruptly suspended its contract with the company, which is at the center of an ongoing salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people, sickened 575 and triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

Schools in California, Minnesota and Idaho received the suspected peanut products from January to November 2007, said Susan Acker, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department. Federal officials notified the affected schools last week and told them to destroy any uneaten food, Acker said. Most of it has probably already been consumed, she said.

Acker said the agency was not aware of any illnesses linked to the peanut products it bought.

"This company had no conscience in its production practices, sales and distribution," said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "That they would knowingly ship products tainted with salmonella to our nation's children almost defies belief."

Peanut Corp. of America found salmonella in its products 12 times in 2007 and 2008 but sold them anyway, sometimes after getting a negative test result from a different laboratory, federal officials say. The test results were kept confidential; companies and laboratories are not required to alert health officials when pathogens are found in foods. Federal investigators say the company never cleaned its equipment or plant after learning of the salmonella.

A company spokeswoman did not return messages Thursday.

The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation.

As for the Kentucky incident, an apparent communication breakdown among federal officials allowed the kits to be sent to help feed hundreds of thousands of people left without power at the height of last week's ice storm. The storm also swept through Arkansas, but federal officials don't think people there got the meal kits affected by the recall.

People were warned Thursday not to eat the peanut butter packets. No illnesses have been reported, and recalls were ordered out of "an abundance of caution," said Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

The company that packaged the meals, Red Cloud Foods Inc., sent a memo dated Jan. 19 to the arm of the Defense Department responsible for getting them to FEMA -- which said it didn't learn of the recall until Wednesday, more than two weeks later.

The kits, which contained entrees, cookies, chips and sometimes peanut butter packets, were assembled in September for relief efforts after Hurricane Ike, said Bob Harrison, chairman of Red Cloud Foods of South Elgin, Ill.

Harrison said Red Cloud learned of the peanut butter recall and notified the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia, an arm of the Defense Department that supplies meals to FEMA, that it was recalling about 530,000 meals.

FEMA spokeswoman Alexandra Kirin said the Food and Drug Administration notified it about 10 days ago that a different company had been added to the list of recalled products that might contain contaminated peanut butter. FEMA went through its prepared meals and discarded about 10,000 linked to that company.

On Wednesday, the FDA told FEMA that Red Cloud had been added to the recall list. Red Cloud told FEMA it notified the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia in January.

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