The recall of peanut products associated with a nationwide salmonella outbreak has had a ripple effect, challenging food retailers to keep up with the ever-expanding list.
"This far exceeds any recall I’ve seen in the last decade or so," said Glynn Jenkins, spokesman for Kroger’s Atlanta division. "New items seem to come out each and every day."
More than 800 consumer products, including some from the nation’s largest food companies, have been voluntarily recalled. It’s likely that many American kitchens now contain at least one item that’s on the recall list.
No one could have foreseen this a month ago, when the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began to suspect that an outbreak of salmonellosis might be linked to peanut butter.
Salmonellosis can cause diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and fever. It is especially dangerous to infants, elderly people and those with weak immune systems.
At least 550 illnesses and eight deaths have been attributed to a particular strain called Salmonella typhimurium. This same strain was found in a container of King Nut peanut butter produced by the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely.
At first, addressing the problem seemed fairly straightforward. Unlike the Peter Pan salmonella outbreak two years ago, which was traced to a Conagra plant in Sylvester, this contamination seemed to be confined to the King Nut brand, which is sold to institutions and is not available at retail stores.
Upon further investigation, however, the FDA found that all products made at the Blakely plant since Jan. 1, 2007, including peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste, might be tainted with salmonella. More than 100 companies had been using those products as ingredients in a variety of foods, including crackers, cookies, ice cream and candy.
Just to be on the safe side, companies began recalling these products, even if no salmonella had been detected in them. The list now includes items as diverse as frozen Thai dinners and rawhide dog treats.
The FDA has been posting daily updates to its Web site. But the list has grown so long that it may be hard for consumers to keep track of the additions. A food that seemed "safe" last week may be recalled today.
To keep it simple, some consumers are refusing to buy anything made with peanuts. Brenda Reid, spokeswoman for Publix stores in Georgia, has started reading package labels carefully.
"You’ve got to be diligent about looking at the ingredients," she said. "Personally, I feel I owe it to my family to avoid products with peanuts right now."
Of course, once a product is added to the recall list, Publix stores remove it from the shelves.
"When we’re notified of a recall, our safety department sends out an e-mail that gives an audible chime," said Reid. "It keeps ringing until someone deals with it."
She said supermarkets are accustomed to handling recalls, though it’s unusual to have this many all at once. Customers who’ve bought a recalled product always can bring it back for a refund, she said.
But what happens to all that food that gets pulled off the shelves?
"Sometimes we return the product to the manufacturer, sometimes we throw it away, depending on what the manufacturer instructs," Reid said.
In recent years, grocery stores have had to deal with outbreaks of food-borne illnesses linked to spinach and tomatoes. But Reid said the situation with peanuts is more complicated.
"The problem with peanuts is they have a very long shelf life, so even after they’re recalled, a lot of people will still have these products in their homes," she said. "With something like spinach, any crop that was affected is quickly gone."
Like Publix, Kroger stores are removing recalled products from shelves as soon as they’re notified, and customers are offered a full refund. Jenkins said he hasn’t heard complaints about so many peanut products being unavailable.
"Obviously, there’s less selection now of products that contain peanut ingredients, and consumers may be somewhat inconvenienced," he said. "But I think most consumers understand and appreciate the fact that retailers such as Kroger have reacted quickly."
What if you already have one of these products in your home, you’ve eaten some of it, and you didn’t get sick? Should you continue eating it?
"I wouldn’t risk it, personally," said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "Sometimes when salmonella is present, it’s not evenly distributed. It may be in one portion of a food and not in another."
Doyle said it doesn’t take a large amount of salmonella bacteria to sicken a person. "What we know about salmonella is when it gets in a fatty food such as peanut butter, the fat protects the salmonella as it goes through the stomach, and then it’s released into the intestines," he said.
Doyle said the major grocery chains do a good job of keeping up with product recalls, but he said people should be wary about shopping at "mom and pop" stores.
"They often still have recalled products on the shelves months later," he said.
Restaurants and other food service establishments haven’t been affected much by the peanut recall, because most of the products are sold at retail.
Cookie Palmer, nutrition director for Hall County Schools, said parents don’t need to worry about lunches served at school.
"We don’t have anything in our cafeterias that’s been on the recall list so far," she said.
Barbara Mayfield, director of nutrition services at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said patient safety is the highest priority.
"We don’t take any chances," she said. "To be honest, we just stopped using all peanut butter products, just to be safe. It had gotten too confusing about which products were OK and which ones weren’t."