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Mending Broken Links

The recent salmonella-peanut butter outbreak reveals how complex the food supply chain is, and why a comprehensive approach to recalls is needed.
By Mark Roberti
Apr 01, 2009—When salmonella was first traced back to a Georgia plant owned by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), it seemed the outbreak would be easily contained. PCA sold peanut butter mainly to food service companies that supplied hospitals, schools, prisons and the like. The company didn't sell peanut butter products to the major brands consumers buy, such as Jif and Skippy.

But, it turns out, the outbreak affected many more companies and products than first expected. So far, some 2,200 products containing contaminated peanut butter or peanuts from PCA—including brownies, cakes, chicken satay, frozen cookie dough, Valentine's candy, ice cream, stuffed celery and even dog food—have been recalled.

When spinach was tainted with E. coli in 2006, investigators found that tracing the source was difficult because the greens from different farms had been mixed together.

The incident highlights how complex the food supply chain has become, and how difficult it can be to track ingredients moving through the supply chain. For example, peanut butter can be coated with chocolate to make peanut butter cups. Those cups could be sold to other companies that either sell them or mix them into ice cream, which is sold either to a supermarket that sells it as a private-label brand or to a major ice-cream producer.

The incident also highlights another problem: Companies can be affected even when they're not at fault. Peanut butter sales dropped 25 percent during a four-week period in January and February. And a family in Oregon is suing Kellogg's, a $13 billion consumer packaged goods company, because their 3-year-old was struck with severe symptoms of salmonella poisoning after eating peanut butter crackers. The lawsuit says Kellogg's was negligent because it failed to use ingredients that were "safe, wholesome, free of defects." The lawsuit also says the company "had a duty to carefully select and monitor its suppliers" but "failed to adequately supervise them."

Based on a study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a decade ago, the Associated Press estimates there are now 87 million cases of food-borne illnesses each year, resulting in 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths. As much as a quarter of the U.S. population suffers a food-borne illness annually, though only a fraction of those cases gets linked to high-profile outbreaks such as the recent salmonella peanut scare, the CDC says.

But the challenges that need to be overcome to secure the food chain are significant. One challenge is data collection. We need to be able to track each ingredient as it moves through the supply chain and is added into a food product. When spinach was tainted with E. coli in 2006, investigators found that tracing the source was difficult, because companies that sell bags of prewashed mixed salads buy from a variety of farms and mix the greens together in large washing tubs before bagging and shipping the products.
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