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Massive peanut product recall hammers sales, raises safety issues

BY DSN STAFF

NEW YORK —The “Great Peanut Butter Scare of 2009” has claimed one more victim—the perpetrator.

The Lynchburg, Va.-based, family-owned Peanut Corporation of America announced Feb. 13 that it had filed for liquidation under Virginia’s bankruptcy law amid a nationwide salmonella scare that forced it to recall many of its products and prompted a federal investigation to determine whether it knowingly shipped contaminated products.

“This outbreak highlights a number of shortcomings with our nation’s food safety systems and underscores the need for greater federal oversight, more effective industry practices and stronger safeguards for the American people,” Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition director Stephen Sundlof said Feb. 11 in testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “A good day at the FDA is when avoidable outbreaks do not occur, and that did not happen here.”

Ironically, news of the massive peanut product recall—which has included some 2,000 different products—comes at a time when Congress is calling on the FDA to take more of a global approach to guarding the nation’s food and drug supply. Meanwhile, the widespread problems found at the PCA facilities are strong evidence that the FDA either lacks the structure or the adequate funding to properly police its own backyard.

PCA originally announced in January that it had voluntarily recalled 21 lots of peanut butter made at its Blakely, Ga., processing plant and sold under the Parnell’s Pride and King Nut brands after 400 people in 42 states became sick with salmonella food poisoning. By the time the company announced its liquidation, that number had increased to 637 and included up to nine deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We at Peanut Corporation of America express our deepest and most sincere sympathy for those sickened in the salmonella outbreak and their families,” the company stated. “We share the public’s concern about the potential connection to Peanut Corporation of America’s products.”

Further recalls by PCA soon followed, as did recalls by its customers, which include private-label and brand-name food companies, institutions and food service companies. Iowa-based supermarket chain Hy-Vee recalled several products made in its bakery, while Minneapolis-based Supervalu’s various supermarket banners recalled private-label products ranging from trail mix to ice cream. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that meal kits given to storm victims in Kentucky and Arkansas also might have contained contaminated peanut butter. In Seattle, local food banks took everything made with peanuts off their shelves, including jars of peanut butter, even though the recall did not affect peanut butter sold directly to consumers.

Of course, all of the recalls have taken a toll on sales of peanut products—though more so on the peanut butter category than any of the snack nut categories, which would stand to reason; peanut butter is more of a commodity food item that consumers tend to keep on hand all the time and consume rather frequently, whereas sales of snack nuts tend to be more seasonally driven. According to data from The Nielsen Co., peanut butter sales were down 11.5% during the four weeks ended Jan. 24, as compared with the previous four-week period, and down almost 4% year-over-year.

Meanwhile, sales of prepackaged peanuts, including bags, cans, jars and unshelled, were down nearly 26% versus the previous four-week period, but only down 1% from the same period a year ago—a typical seasonal pattern shift, according to Nielsen.

“The peanut butter outbreak shows little ill-effect on prepackaged peanuts, but the peanut butter category is definitely showing the impact,” said Todd Hale, SVP Consumer & Shopper Insights at Nielsen. “It would appear that manufacturers and retailers are quickly removing potentially tainted products off of store shelves. For those who are not affiliated with the particular supplier of tainted product, now is the time to take extra measures to educate consumers and minimize any negative impact.”

And there is evidence to suggest that big peanut butter brand makers—who were not caught up in the recalls—may need to be more proactive in letting consumers know their products always have been safe. According to a Harvard University survey released in early February, about 1-in-4 consumers mistakenly believed that national peanut butter brands were involved in the product recalls. About 15% said they stopped eating any foods containing peanuts.

An FDA investigation of PCA’s Blakely plant that took place between Jan. 9 and Feb. 5 found salmonella contamination on floors near storage locations for finished products, as well as a cooler with water stains and mold and several other major health violations.

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Obama may overturn Bush’s ‘conscience’ rules

BY Alaric DeArment

NEW YORK The Obama Administration may overturn the Bush Administration’s “conscience” rules that allow healthcare workers to invoke religious beliefs to deny certain services such as birth control, according to published reports.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Barack Obama may roll back the provisions, which allow pharmacists to refuse to prescribe birth control pills on account of personal religious beliefs. 

Seven states have also filed lawsuits to challenge the rule, the newspaper reported.

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Clear up patient medication guidelines, independent pharmacy group urges FDA

BY Jim Frederick

ALEXANDRIA, Va. The National Community Pharmacists Association wants the government to give patients a clearer, more concise set of guidelines on how to take their medications, the effects those drugs have and the risks and benefits they carry.

The independent pharmacy organization yesterday urged the Food and Drug Administration’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee to push for a change in the current system of overlapping instructions that go to patients along with their prescriptions. In testimony before the committee, NCPA asked the agency to develop criteria for a guidance that would describe “a single, patient-friendly, written prescription information sheet to eventually replace the multiple written documents that patients can currently receive from their pharmacists with a particular prescription.

Under current practices, those documents can include  Medication Guides, Patient Package Inserts [PPIs] and Consumer Medication Information [CMI]. Too often, said NCPA’s director of public policy, Tony Lee, patients discard the CMI and never read it — sometimes even throwing it away before they leave the pharmacy.

“While we recognize that the FDA has worked hard to try and improve these medication documents, the problem needs to be addressed in a fundamentally different way that combines useful written information with the personal relationships between the pharmacists and patients,” Lee told the FDA advisory panel.

“It is time for a comprehensive solution to this written prescription information issue,” added John Coster, NCPA’s senior VP of government affairs. “Any FDA effort to make CMI more useful for the patient should be accompanied by a broader assessment of the usefulness and purpose of the other information leaflets that pharmacist may be required to provide. We look forward to working with the agency and patient groups to meet this goal.”

Last summer, NCPA joined other pharmacy provider groups to file a “One Document” citizens’ petition with the FDA. The Risk Advisory Committee was convened specifically to address how to make CMI leaflets more useful for the patient, the group noted.

“These leaflets are voluntarily provided by the pharmacist, but the information contained in these leaflets often duplicates information in other written leaflets,” NCPA stated.

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