February 18, 2009

Univ. Pulls Peanut Products Off Shelves

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The Food and Drug Adminstration is currently working with the Center for Disease Control to determine the origin of the outbreak.
In response to the outbreak, a special notice was posted on Cornell Dining’s website assuring the Cornell Community of its attentiveness to the FDA’s warnings about Salmonella in various peanut butter products.
“All related peanut butter products have been pulled from the shelves in Cornell Dining’s retail and convenience store outlets, as well as those in our all you care to eat facilities. These items will remain off the shelf until a definitive finding is made public by the FDA,” the notice stated.
Karen Brown, director of Campus Life Marketing & Communications, stated in an e-mail, “Cornell Dining and Retail Services takes very seriously its commitment to excellence in food service, and that includes an immediate and decisive response to FDA warnings and recalls. Cornell Dining will always act cautiously, removing all products related to a food recall until we’re advised by the FDA or other governing bodies that products are absolutely safe for consumption.”
Although not all brands of jarred peanut butter are not involved in the recall, peanut butter sales have dropped nearly 25 percent. With previous outbreaks, it took companies a considerable amount of time for the companies involved to recover lost sales. Often after a recall, a product’s salees do not return it its position from before the outbreak, Gravani explained.
“Clearly what this shows is that when you have an outbreak in a specific area or category of foods, it affects all foods in that category regardless if they are involved in this particular incident or not. That is troublesome for all the other people in the peanut butter business who haven’t done anything wrong,” Gravani said.
While the FDA has not determined the cause of the outbreak, they have posted inspection reports on their website. The reports have established that there were unsanitary conditions in the plant. As a result, the contamination of products was not difficult.
“The plant was in bad shape and clearly should never have been allowed to operate,” Gravani said.
“In this case, the FDA contacted the state of Georgia to conduct inspections of the plant and apparently on several inspections they did not find any significant issues. When the outbreak occurred, however, the FDA spent several weeks there and found quite a few violations,” he said.
“This certainly has been a huge wake up call for legislatures to say, ‘how can we strengthen the food safety system in this country?’,” he added.
“One of the ways is to give adequate funding to the agencies that are out there to protect our public health. They don’t have the funding to do their jobs properly, they don’t have the staffing on the ground; the investigators to do these inspections,” he added.
Gravani emphasized that open communication between the food industry and the regulatory system is vital to ensuring food safety.
“Food safety is a huge responsibility,” Gravani said. “The industry has a major share of that responsibility because they are supposed to provide safe and wholesome foods to the American public. The regulatory system is placed to act as a check and balance so that if there are some problems, they can detect them and make sure the products don’t get into cupboards,” he said.
“But I think that it is a shared responsibility. If one or both don’t work very well, then we have a problem,” he added.
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When asked about the economic costs of the recalls specifically at Cornell, Brown stated, “Of course, there will always be an impact on sales when products are recalled. Our primary concern is for the safety, health, and well being of our students, staff, and faculty.”
Brown explained that because Cornell Dining has strong working relationships with their vendors and suppliers, products that were recalled were quickly pulled from supplier inventories once they became aware of a recall warning. Items that were already in stock and on shelves at Cornell’s convenience and retail outlets were pulled from the shelves and set aside until the FDA makes any “definitive safety declarations,” she stated in an e-mail.
It is difficult to calculate the economic effects of the outbreak but Gravani said they will likely be significant.
“When you think about all the products that have been destroyed, the investigative costs, the regulatory costs, the microbiological testing …all of that is going to be huge,” he said.
Rachel Fogel ’11, who eats peanut butter often, was surprised to hear the extent of the recalls.
“I thought the contamination was in a few products. I feel like a lot of people don’t realize how many products the recall has affected,” she said.
Gravani said, “I think the take home message is that students often don’t pay attention to the recalls. I think it is important because they might have products in their rooms, or their apartments or their fraternity or sorority houses that might be part of this recall. They should check it out.”