Peanuts have been much in the news lately because of illnesses and even deaths traced to contaminated peanut products from a plant in Georgia. Robin Orr, the director of programming for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program as well as the Family Nutrition Program at the University of Illinois, discussed food safety in general, and peanuts in particular, in a recent interview.
Sales of peanut products have dropped since the news of contamination at a U.S. peanut-processing plant. Is the public's apparent concern about peanut products justified?
People should be concerned and it is their responsibility to be informed. We have the right to be safe and the responsibility to be informed. The problem began with a peanut-processing plant in Georgia that was not safely processing peanuts. Salmonella in tainted products can cause gastrointestinal problems, and even death.
The FDA has done a great job keeping the public informed. As we recommend in all food-safety issues - 'when in doubt, throw it out.' If you are eating a major brand of peanut butter from a jar purchased from a retailer, you are safe. If you're going to eat peanuts in a bar, ask the management where the peanuts were grown and processed. They should know. If they say Peanut Corp. of America, don't eat them. If the bar management doesn't know the origin of the nuts, don't eat them. If you visit www.FDA.gov you can find lists of recalled foods.
What can and should be done to minimize the chances of this sort of contamination happening again?
Adhere more closely to the standards in place. We have had a problem with peanut butter and peanut products since 2007 and that alone should signal the need for a tightening of systems. In the peanut-processing system, contamination from salmonella would logically occur with animal fecal contamination. This should be eliminated as a problem in the roasting process. The issue currently is contamination after roasting. Something was not up to standard in the plant under scrutiny.
Are there guidelines in place that should have prevented this problem or are stricter policies needed?
Following our current guidelines should be enough. It is expensive and often time-consuming to find out the origin and cause of salmonella in the food supply. Stricter policies are expensive and cost lots of money, and then the price of food rises - and we can still get problems. Is our food supply safe? Yes. Do we know where all our food is grown and processed? Not always. People in the United States like cheap food. We don't like when food prices increase. We are going to have an increase in food-borne illness because there are more and more people, more and more places that grow food. The best approach for consumers is to know all you can about the food you are buying and eating. Ask questions. Realize your power as a consumer.