Peanut recall hits Morris Area as state aims to curb salmonella threat
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
Sun Tribune report
ST. PAUL - Food inspectors are fanning out across Minnesota this week to make sure potentially tainted peanut butter products no longer are for sale.
The list of products that could be infected with possibly deadly salmonella bacteria tops 800, leading to what some say is the biggest recall in the country's history.
The Morris Area School District was identified late last week as having peanut products included in the recall.
On Monday, Morris Area Food Service Director Kelly Nielsen searched the inventory and found peanut products that are on a hold list issued Friday by the Minnesota Department of Education, Superintendent Scott Monson said.
"The product we had in our inventory was peanuts that were purchased through the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) commodity program," Monson said. "We immediately removed these from our shelves and placed them in a secure location until further notice. We will not be offering them to students or staff."
Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley, Wheaton, Dawson-Boyd, Campbell-Tintah, Breckenridge, Brandon-Evansville and Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg are among area school districts included in the hold notice issued Friday.
The Morris Area district continues to communicate with the Department of Education to verify that other peanut products from the commodity program are safe for consumption, Monson said.
"The safety of our students and staff is paramount," he said, "and we will continue to monitor information as it becomes available, with the assistance of the Minnesota Department of Education."
Monson encouraged anyone who has questions to contact him at the district administrative office at (320) 589-4840.
State food inspectors also are expanding their efforts in the wake of deaths -- including three in Minnesota -- from salmonella potentially linked to peanut butter products.
"They are looking for any of those 800 products ... making sure all of those identified products are removed from sale," Ben Miller of the Minnesota Agriculture Department said Monday about the inspectors.
They will visit places such as grocery and convenience stores.
The peanut butter problem did not begin in Minnesota, but three of the country's eight deaths believed related to the contaminated Georgia-produced peanut butter were in Minnesota. Thirty-six Minnesotans were reportedly sickened in the outbreak, among the most in the country.
At a Minnesota House agriculture committee hearing Monday, state agriculture and health department officials passed around the remainder of a five-pound tub of peanut butter - sealed in plastic - that allowed them to solve the nationwide outbreak.
The tub came from a Brainerd nursing home, where a Perham woman's death is blamed on salmonella in the peanut butter. Relatives of Shirley Mae Almer sued the peanut butter maker over her death.
"That is, in fact, the smoking tub," Leeann Johnson of the Agriculture Department told lawmakers.
Minnesota health and agriculture department employees put together the pieces of the salmonella puzzle that allowed national health officials to slow the outbreak.
"The more we looked at it, the more the peanut butter began to stand out," Miller said.
"Once we had identified peanut butter as probably the suspect vehicle, we began to look back," Miller added.
That is when it was discovered the Georgia-made King Nut peanut butter was distributed by Sysco of Fargo, N.D., to institutions such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals in northwestern Minnesota.
National health officials say brand-name peanut butter on store shelves is safe, but products ranging from crackers to ice cream that contain peanut butter should be avoided.
Dr. Kirk Smith of the Health Department said his agency is receiving more calls than normal from people with diarrhea, a salmonella poisoning symptom. Most are not connected to the peanut butter problem, he said.
The outbreak began in October and peaked in December.
Nationwide, more than 500 people in 43 states have been affected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Minnesota's 36 illnesses and three deaths centered on the northern part of the state.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, wanted to know what was being done to prevent Minnesota-made products from problems like the Georgia peanut butter. Miller said the state's most senior inspectors check food-manufacturing plants.
However, Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Mora, complained that the state does not require samples of each batch of a food product to be preserved for later testing if needed. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, added that very few problems have been reported with Minnesota food products.
Still, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said that anything government can do to increase consumer confidence would be good for agriculture.
While legislators heard about Minnesota's part in solving the mystery, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was praising Minnesotans' work.
The Minnesota Democrat did that in a letter she sent to President Barack Obama, who on Monday called for an investigation into the Food and Drug Administration's handling of the outbreak.
"I think that the FDA has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as I expect them to," Obama told NBC News.
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