Once again, a food safety scare has swept across the US causing fresh concern among US consumers and repeated calls for reform of how the country regulates its food supply. Dean Best examines the impact of the peanut butter salmonella outbreak.

It may be a new year but, for some, it seems the same old problems persist in the US food supply chain.

A food safety scare is once gain dominating headlines in the US. In just the last couple of years, the food industry has seen scares involving spinach, peanut butter, beef and tomatoes and now peanut butter has returned to the spotlight.

Some 488 people in 43 US states and one person in Canada has fallen ill after an outbreak of salmonella typhimurium swept across the country. Six deaths have also been linked to the outbreak, which has been traced by aback to a plant in Georgia, owned by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

Earlier this month, health officials in the state of Minnesota investigating a salmonella outbreak found the source to be from an open container of King Nut peanut butter. Officials in Connecticut and Georgia then separately isolated salmonella from unopened containers of the King Nut peanut butter, which is produced at the PCA plant in Blakely, Georgia.

King Nut peanut butter is distributed to foodservice outlets and institutions like long-term care facilities and schools but what at first may have seemed like a minor outbreak has, through the myriad supply relationships between US food manufacturers, developed into a food scare affecting potentially 70 firms, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

As you'd expect, PCA's plant has suspended production and remains under investigation but the outbreak has also taken in food manufacturing giants including Kellogg and Ralcorp Holdings and national retailers Kroger and Safeway. PCA distributes peanut butter and peanut paste to a number of food manufactures across the US. Over 125 products have been recalled and Kellogg has announced that traces of salmonella have been found in its Austin crackers.

The outbreak is likely to have a knock-on effect on food manufacturers selling products not linked to the contamination. The FDA, which is often the subject of fierce criticism for its handling of food safety scares, took the cautious step of urging US consumers to postpone eating manufactured products containing peanut butter. The recommendation prompted the likes of Hershey, Mars and Tasty Baking Co. to issue swift announcements assuring the public that their products were safe.

Food manufacturers are only too aware of the impact a food scare can have son sales. The moves by some to declare a clean bill of health for their products are a desperate move to shore up public confidence in their brands. They know that products that are the subject of recall face the prospect of nervous consumers switching their allegiance elsewhere. According to a study last year by Deloitte, over half of US consumers claim they have stopped eating a product if it was the subject of a recent food recall.

The US food industry body, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is quick to state just how much importance the country's food makers place on food safety.

"Food safety is the number one priority for GMA and its member companies, as it serves as the foundation for the consumer trust and confidence in our brands and products that makes everything else we do possible," a GMA spokesman tells just-food.

The under-fire FDA, which along with the US Department of Agriculture oversees the US food supply, insists that the burden for ensuring the safety of food rests with the manufacturers themselves.

"The food industry is really the responsible party for ensuring that the products that they produce are safe," argues Dr Stephen Sundlof, director for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA. "Consumers do have some responsibility in making sure that once they receive a product that they handle it in the manner that doesn't render it unsafe. But it is not the responsibility of the consumer to make sure that the product that they receive is a safe product; that is the responsibility if the food industry, with the oversight of the FDA."

Dr Sundlof insists that, when a contamination like the ongoing peanut butter salmonella scare occurs, " it represents a failure of... an individual within the industry, of living up to what is expected of them both legally and from a moral stand-point - and that is to make sure that the products that they produce are not harmful to the public".

Nevertheless, this peanut butter scare has seen calls for the urgent reform of the FDA resurface. The agency has faced such calls before, most notably during last summer's tomato salmonella scare, and this more recent episode is no different.

While the FDA is busy setting up offices in China and Latin America to police the quality of food exported to the US, some believes there also needs to be a focus on the agency's structure at home.

Vocal US consumer watchdog the Center for Science in the Public Interest has urged President Obama to bring the country's food safety system "into the 21st century".

CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal believes that without mandates for recall and with few inspectors, the FDA's "ability to protect the public is minimal".

"This latest outbreak proves again that FDA is woefully inadequate to the task of protecting American consumers from unsafe food," DeWaal says. "It presently inspects low risk peanut butter plants rarely, or not at all, leaving the job to state inspection agencies. Although FDA is responsible for the safety of more than 80% of the food supply, the commissioner must divide his or her attention among drugs, medical devices, foods, and cosmetics. 

"While additional funding could help, with food responsibilities divided between three centres within the FDA, there is no food safety expert in charge of both the policies and enforcement staff to implement needed changes. There is also no credible voice communicating to the public and the industry what can be done to prevent future outbreaks."

The GMA also believes reform is vital, especially in beefing up the tools at the FDA's disposal to improve food safety. "Prevention is the key to avoiding and reducing food-related contamination and related health outbreaks," the GMA spokesman says. "That is why GMA for the past two years, has been calling on Congress to require the FDA to strengthen America's food safety net by requiring every food company selling food in the US to conduct a food safety risk analysis that identifies potential sources of contamination and identifies appropriate food safety controls. Based on that risk analysis, every food company would also be required to develop and implement a food safety plan for its entire supply chain that would be confirmed by the FDA."

The GMA also believes more funding for the FDA is vital. Indeed, the specific circumstances and the scale of this case suggests that the Obama administration, already facing a long list of priorities, should find more resources for the agency.

US Officials warned this week that the investigation into the peanut butter scare is getting wider and yet more products could be recalled. "More cases are being reported every day; the outbreak appears to be ongoing," said Dr Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The specifics of this case, Dr Tauxe suggested, also made it particularly complex. "In this outbreak, the output of this small company is in two forms - one is a peanut butter that has a brand and goes to institutions, the King Nut brand, that was the initial signal," Dr Tauxe said.

"But it also puts out an ingredient, a peanut butter ingredient, that is used in a huge variety of different foods. Tracking them down both epidemiologically in our investigations, tracking them down by reviewing the sales and invoices as FDA is doing, and finding samples that can be cultured is a very large and ongoing undertaking involving many people."

For some, without reform and more funding, this latest nationwide food scare will by no means be the last.