Minnesota's food detectives solve the case of tainted peanut butter
ST. PAUL -- Nine dead, three in Minnesota, with 654 sick in 44 states. It almost sounds like terrorists spreading a deadly disease. Federal, state and local investigative agencies nationwide sprang into action well before numbers rose that high. ...
ST. PAUL -- Nine dead, three in Minnesota, with 654 sick in 44 states.
It almost sounds like terrorists spreading a deadly disease. Federal, state and local investigative agencies nationwide sprang into action well before numbers rose that high.
There were few clues about why Americans were getting sick and dying.
Then, three days before Christmas last year, more than three months after the first person fell ill, the Minnesota Health Department's Stephanie Meyer noticed that victims in her state had one thing in common -- they all ate peanut butter.
But the favorite snack of many a child was an unlikely cause for the national illness outbreak.
"We couldn't rule anything out and couldn't rule anything in," Meyer's fellow epidemiologist, Carlota Medus, said.
By Jan. 9, Meyer, Medus and their colleagues in Minnesota's agriculture and health departments had proof that bad peanut butter was being served, and a few days later they traced it to a Georgia peanut butter and peanut paste maker.
No one knows how many lives those Minnesota state workers saved, or how many Americans will remain healthy because of their work, their food detective work.
Food inspectors in the Agriculture Department and disease prevention and control experts in the Health Department -- and laboratory technicians in both departments -- work hand-in-glove together on a daily basis to trace down food-borne illnesses of all types. It is all in a day's work for them, but in an outbreak that rocked the country's food supply, their efforts rose to another level.
Like last year, when workers in the two agencies found jalapeno peppers were to blame for a similar outbreak -- not tomatoes as others suspected -- Minnesota led the way to solving the peanut butter salmonella outbreak.
Tracing the cause
The outbreak produced the country's largest food recall, which now stands at more than 2,300 products that contain peanut butter or peanut paste made in a Peanut Corporation of American plant in Blakeley, Ga. Even pet food is affected.
It began in early September, when a few Americans began getting sick because of salmonella, an intestinal tract bacteria that can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It can be fatal, especially to children and the elderly.
Minnesotans began getting sick in mid-November.
Salmonella typhimurium, the strain affecting people, became more prevalent in December. Peanut butter and chicken were suspected, but evidence was sketchy at best.
On Dec. 21, with nine Minnesota cases matching the strain, Shirley Mae Almer of Perham died in a Brainerd nursing home.
The next day, three new cases were reported at the nursing home and Meyer began to suspect peanut butter as the cause.
From there, it was detective work that allowed Minnesota's agriculture and health departments to solve the case. Ben Miller of the state Agriculture Department and Medus said it involved finding the common thread.
State officials asked affected nursing homes and schools to tell them where they bought their peanut butter.
The invoices led them to Sysco Food Services in Fargo, N.D., a branch of a nationwide food wholesaler that serves institutions such as schools, nursing homes and restaurants.
Sysco sold King Nut peanut butter to all Minnesota's affected institutions.
By Jan. 5, a food inspector was sent to the Brainerd nursing home to retrieve an opened five-pound tub of the peanut butter.
On Jan. 9, with tests showing salmonella in the peanut butter, Minnesota officials warned institutions to stop using the product. That was Friday. By Monday, Minnesota laboratory tests proved King Nut peanut butter made in Georgia was the culprit.
Medus said the outbreak appears to be on the downside.
"I would not expect a lot more," she said.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the News Tribune.