Fred Pritzker, who practices extensively in foodborne illness litigation, has urged the companies responsible to immediately pay medical bills and wage losses for those sickened by the outbreak, as well as compensating consumers who purchased the recalled product.
The source of this outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium, which according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has sickened at least 400 people in 42 US states, has been traced to tainted King Nut brand peanut butter.
The Ohio based company announced a recall of its peanut butter after the Minnesota Department of Health said it found evidence that the product may be the source of the pathogen.
The King Nut peanut butter is manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America, and is only sold to non-retail food outlets.
In early 2007, ConAgra was forced to recall Peter Pan and Great Value branded peanut butter products linked to its contaminated manufacturing facility in Georgia.
The CDC then linked about 628 cases of Salmonella illness across 47 states to consumption of the ConAgra product.
The recall alone cost the food manufacturer a reported $66m, demonstrating the huge sums food companies incur when hygiene controls in the plant go awry, which does not include the additional impact on brand loyalty and customer trust.
Pritzker questions the stringency of current microbiological testing in food processing plants, particularly in relation to food with long shelf life such as peanut butter, arguing that the product should not be allowed to leave the plant unless its safety is confirmed.
The food safety lawyer claims that more resources must be devoted to federal food safety, both in terms of contamination prevention and in detection time: “The current system is undermined by too much fragmentation of responsibility and not enough coordination between federal, state and local agencies.”
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) came in for heavy criticism during the summer of 2008 for falsely correlating a nationwide Salmonella outbreak with US grown tomatoes.
The outbreak, in which around 1,400 people became ill, was eventually traced to jalapeno peppers grown in Mexico.
Meanwhile, US researchers claim to have developed a new technology to detect illness causing bacteria that could remove the need for product recalls and protect the health of consumers.
The Oregon State University group said their method, the details of which were published in the journal, Microbial Biotechnology, is more directly related to toxicity assessment than the conventional techniques to test food for bacterial contamination and safety.
According to lead researcher Janine Trempy, the team’s novel approach is based on previous research looking at the colour changes in pigment-bearing cells from Siamese fighting fish.
She explained that studies have found that when Siamese fighting fish encounter certain stressful or threatening environmental conditions, such as exposure to toxic chemicals like mercury, the erythrophores change appearance, and the pigment moves in a characteristic pattern to an internal part of the cell.
Trempy said that the change in pigment location in response to a toxic chemical is rapid, obvious and can be numerically described.
“We discovered that the pigment bearing cells, erythrophores, respond immediately to certain food associated, toxin producing bacteria responsible for making humans sick,” she continued. “There is the potential to directly assess the toxic behaviour of the contaminating bacteria, not just the simple presence of the DNA or protein of these bacteria.”
She added that the method can detect food-associated bacteria such as Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens.
Trempy said that further work is also required to develop a pigment bearing cell for mass production and commercial use and that the team anticipate that portable kits could result that would enable food processors, distributors and handlers, or even consumers to quickly test food for contaminating bacterial toxicity.