March 2009

Manufacturing, analytical sophistication no match for willful misconduct

The automation of food and pharmaceuticals production and packaging in North America and Europe is probably the most regulated, scrutinized, and hygienic industry verticals.

Clean-in-place, sterilization, clean rooms, and government oversight are the concepts and venues we associate with those items we produce to put in our mouths.

Source: Rocky Mountain Laboratories

Pulp-and-paper plants, refineries, and bulk chemical factories can never achieve the permitting necessary to make human consumables despite the fact they produce four nines (99.99% pure) products.

Protecting the public is probably impossible when companies like the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) produce and ship salmonella laced peanut butter, in a willful manner according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The case is reminiscent of the recent mass melamine poisoning that took place in China, also done in a willful manner and with disregard for public safety.

Late 2008 and this year, eight people died and at least 19,000 people in 43 states, most of them children, became sick in the outbreak of food poisoning from eating products containing peanuts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This infection triggered the most extensive food recall ever in U.S. history, involving at least 186 companies and 1,790 different products that contained PCA ingredients. The recall included everything produced at the company's Blakely, Ga., plant since 1 January 2007.

Salmonella is a bacilli that can cause diarrheal illness in humans. They are microscopic living creatures that pass from the feces of people or animals to other people or other animals. The Salmonella family includes over 2,300 serotypes of bacteria, which are one-celled organisms too small to see without a microscope. Two types, Salmonella Enteritidis and Salmonella Typhimurium are the most common in the U.S. and account for half of all human infections.

Strains that cause no symptoms in animals can make people sick, and vice versa. If present in food, it does not usually affect the taste, smell, or appearance of the food. The bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of infected animals and humans.

People contracting the bug experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within eight to 72 hours of eating the contaminated food. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms usually disappear within four to seven days.

Many people with salmonellosis recover without treatment and may never see a doctor. However, Salmonella infections can be life threatening especially for infants, young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems.

The New York Times reported the FDA accused the PCA of repeatedly shipping peanut butter and other products right after discovering Salmonella. PCA is under criminal investigation.