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Confusion reigns over safety of peanut products

/ Source: The Associated Press

Manufacturers using peanut products from the company blamed for a national salmonella outbreak are finding themselves in limbo, increasingly uncertain how widespread the contamination could be and wondering whether it's safe to continue distributing even those products that have not yet been recalled.

While some companies are aggressively putting a halt to products, others are standing pat — hoping for definitive word from federal regulators on whether the items they produce that contain peanuts are safe to be consumed.

Federal investigators last month fingered a Georgia peanut processing plant operated by Peanut Corp. of America as the source of the salmonella outbreak, which has sickened some 600 people and may have contributed to nine deaths. More than 2,000 products linked to that plant have been recalled.

Concerns were heightened after initial lab tests on peanut meal, granulated peanuts and roasted peanuts from the company's plant in Plainview, Texas, also showed likely salmonella contamination. So far, the FDA has not requested products from that plant be recalled and no products that tested positive for salmonella have reached consumers, Texas health officials said.

Still, faced with growing uncertainty, and in the absence of guidance from federal health officials, many of the several dozen stores and food companies that received peanuts and peanut products from the Texas plant are playing it safe, keeping the product in quarantine, running their own tests, pulling packages from shelves and issuing recalls.

"It's a snowball that keeps getting larger," Karen Gardipee of Michigan-based Grand Rapids Popcorn said with a sigh.

Operations suspended at Texas plant

Gardipee said she called federal inspectors after reading the news this week that Peanut Corp. had suspended operations at its Texas plant. She decided to hold more than 20 cases of granulated peanuts until more details are known.

Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said in an e-mail Thursday that the agency hadn't requested recalls and had yet to receive results from samples it pulled at the plant last month. She declined to answer any further questions, citing an ongoing investigation. Doug McBride, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said Thursday that the department has not yet been able to confirm whether salmonella was found at the Texas plant.

The fact that the FDA cannot order and easily enforce recalls is one of the main problems cited by food safety activist groups who have called for an overhaul of the agency.

The Texas plant, which opened in March 2005 and was run by a Peanut Corp. subsidiary, Plainview Peanut Co., was not inspected by state health officials until after problems arose at the company's Georgia plant.

The federal government has opened a criminal investigation into the company, and its president, Stewart Parnell, repeatedly refused to answer questions Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, which is seeking ways to prevent another outbreak.

‘We're not going to take a chance’

In the weeks since the outbreak, the cloud of suspicion over Peanut Corp. plants and their products has mushroomed. Word of disturbingly dirty conditions at its plants, documents showing pressure from Parnell to ship tainted products — coupled with no definitive guidance from regulators — has left consumers and Peanut Corp. customers uncertain.

Robert Grauer, president of In a Nut Shell, a wholesale food distributor based in San Leandro, Calif., said he's not taking any chances. The company has about 200 cases of peanuts from the Texas plant, and has to decided to hold them in storage.

Some companies are waiting on word from federal authorities before putting out a recall or placing a hold on products.

Ken Werner, owner of Werner Gourmet Meat Snacks Inc. in Tillamook, Ore., said fewer than 20 of his company's roughly 100 products contain peanuts. He recalled trail mixes and peanuts that were covered under earlier recalls linked to the Georgia plant. But he hadn't yet recalled any products linked to the Texas plant.

"We're waiting to hear from the FDA as far as a recall," he said. "If they issue a recall, we'll recall more products."

But other companies are going ahead and pulling packages.

A handful of Whole Foods Market supermarkets in northern California that received products containing peanuts from the Texas plant pulled from them from shelves Tuesday "in an overabundance of caution," said Libba Letton, spokeswoman for the Austin, Texas-based company.

The Bergin Fruit & Nut Co. in St. Paul, Minn., has had nearly 2,000 pounds of raw redskin and blanched peanuts on hold since late January, when Peanut Corp. issued an expanded recall that included products produced at its Georgia plant as far back as 2007, said quality control manager Bill Jaspers.

"We will probably be destroying it because, frankly, I think PCA has got bigger problems than a product recall," he said.