Interview with Christine Bruhn, PhD, regarding Salmonella and Products that Contain Peanut Butter

Christine Bruhn, PhD, University of California at Davis, provides her perspective on the recent Salmonella and peanut butter investigation.  Chris is a consumer food safety specialist and researches consumer responses to information about issues in the news that impact health and food safety.

We’ve been hearing recently about peanut butter being contaminated with Salmonella. Can you give us an overview of the current situation?

Peanut butter prepared by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), a large facility in Georgia, was found to be the source of Salmonella that has caused an outbreak of foodborne illness. As many as 500 persons have been infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella typhimurium.  Illnesses have been reported from 43 states and Canada. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), affected persons range in age from 1 to 98 years; 48% are female. Almost 20% of the victims were hospitalized and the infection may have contributed to several deaths.  This company sells peanut butter to food service and food companies rather than supermarkets. The peanut butter paste is used to prepare cookie dough, cookies, snacks, and even pet food.  Numerous food companies have issued recalls on all products that may be processed with the contaminated peanut butter paste.

How did the contamination occur?

The CDC has not determined how the actual contamination occurred. Salmonella is widely found in the environment; it is carried by birds, reptiles, and turtles and can survive in the soil for an extended time.

How different is this type of Salmonella from the Salmonella contamination of peppers from last summer?

Many strains of Salmonella can cause foodborne illness. Salmonella Saint Paul was responsible for the contaminated peppers last summer. The Salmonella strain involved in this particular outbreak, Salmonella typhimurium, is considered common. This strain was also responsible for the 2007 outbreak from undercooked frozen pot pies.

From a public health perspective, who might be most affected by this current outbreak?

Anyone can become ill from Salmonella. Illness may be more severe among infants, persons older than 55 years of age, and those with weakened immune systems. When severe infection occurs, Salmonella may spread from the intestines to the bloodstream and then to other body sites and can cause severe illness or even death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics.

What are the signs of possible Salmonella infection and what should we do if we think we have consumed a contaminated product?

Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. Infection is usually diagnosed by culture of a stool sample. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days. Although most people recover without treatment, severe infections may occur. If you experience these symptoms and you think you may have eaten a contaminated product, contact your physician immediately.

What products have been contaminated?

Supermarket brands of peanut butter are NOT contaminated. The Peanut Corporation of America distributes most of their product to food service, so restaurants, schools, and hospitals should check their source of peanut butter. Also companies that produce peanut butter flavored products may have used peanut butter paste from PCA. Even pet snacks may contain peanut butter paste from this company. Check the FDA Web site for a current list of recalled products at: 

What advice would you give consumers if they have recalled peanut products in their homes?

Check if your product matches the recall list. If the code matches, or you are uncertain, contact the company or return the product to the supermarket for a refund. Don't take a chance with your family’s health.

Where can the public go for more information?

Check the following Web pages via the links below:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

International Food Information Council (IFIC)
A Consumer's Guide to Food Safety Risks