Cost of Salmonella Outbreak Likely to Top $1 Billion
By Todd Neale, Staff Writer, MedPage Today
Published: March 13, 2009

WASHINGTON, March 13 -- The price tag for the ongoing Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak linked to tainted peanut products won't be known for some time, but it's likely to be well in excess of $1 billion.

That's the figure Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission, tossed out to a House small business subcommittee in the latest effort by lawmakers to figure out what went wrong and determine how to secure the safety of America's food supply.

But Kohler's estimate accounts only for the expected cost to peanut growers. When the bill comes due for lost retail sales, extra work hours to remove suspect products from store shelves, and healthcare for those infected in the outbreak, the total impact will be much greater.

It could dwarf the fallout from last year's outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul caused by Mexican-grown jalapeno and serrano peppers. (See: FDA Clears U.S.-Grown Hot Peppers, Focusing Salmonella Hunt on Mexican Farms and FDA Finds Salmonella Saintpaul in Water and Peppers at Mexican Farm)

That outbreak cost the original suspect, U.S. tomato growers, "well into the hundreds of millions of dollars," according to a spokeswoman from the Produce Marketing Association.

It turned out the tomato growers weren't even responsible. No one knows how much it cost the real source of the outbreak -- the pepper industry.

As a result of the current furor, 3,420 products containing peanut ingredients from Peanut Corporation of America -- identified as the source of the outbreak -- have been recalled since Jan. 12. They include snacks, peanut butter, brownies, cakes, pies, ice cream, candy, cereal, cookies, crackers, donuts, and pet food.

The outbreak -- which the CDC said is ongoing -- has sickened 683 individuals in 46 states, as well as one in Canada. About a quarter of the victims have been hospitalized, and nine have died -- although the deaths have not been definitively linked to the infection.

Estimates of the eventual dollar price tag are hard to come by. An FDA spokesman said the agency "would not directly or immediately have this sort of information."

Calls by MedPage Today to the American Peanut Council, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and the National Retail Federation yielded similar responses.

A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores, the top U.S. grocery retailer, said the company did not have that kind of information either.

Regardless of the cost, the magnitude of the outbreak and actions by the Peanut Corporation of America, which the Justice Department is investigating, have grabbed the attention of lawmakers across the political spectrum.

In Congress, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), introduced the Food Safety Modernization Act, which would create an independent Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services and change the FDA's name to reflect a reduced role as the Federal Drug and Device Administration.

Taking less drastic approach to reorganization that would leave the FDA intact, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced the FDA Globalization Act, and Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) introduced the Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment, Standards, and Targeting (FEAST) Act.

Whatever vehicle Congress uses, no one thinks the job will be an easy one.

"Reorganizing large federal bureaucracies takes a great deal of time, and this is time we do not have when it comes to food safety," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said at a hearing of a subcommittee of the House energy and commerce committee.

He suggested using Dingell's bill as the foundation for any reform.

"It is clear that we need to give FDA some basic authorities that will enable it to do its job. FDA does not have the authority to routinely access records documenting the steps that manufacturers take to assure safety. FDA also lacks modern and flexible enforcement tools, like administrative civil monetary penalties. It is our job to get FDA the resources and authorities it needs to get the job done and to do it well," he said.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, testified at the hearing and suggested several measures to strengthen the FDA and secure the safety of the U.S. food supply. Among them:

Requiring FDA-regulated plants to have food safety plans in place detailing steps to prevent contamination
Enforcing performance standards
More frequent inspections by the FDA
Giving the authority to the FDA to see sampling records of food plants
Allowing the FDA to establish a system to certify that imported food is safe
Increased FDA-directed research into pathogens and other food contaminants
FDA authority to set safety standards that must be followed by farmers
Mandatory FDA recall authority
A system for tracking food from its origins to final product
FDA authority to temporarily detain food thought to be unsafe
Greater penalties for violators.
Whistleblower protections

Meanwhile. the FDA released a nonbinding guidance document for industry to address the risk of salmonella contamination. It recommended that food manufacturers buy ingredients only from producers that use validated processes to reduce the risk of contamination.

If they buy ingredients from producers that don't meet this standard, the manufacturers should ensure that their own processes reduce the risk. The FDA noted that a history of negative microbiological tests in finished products is not sufficient to prove that its processes are effective.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently issued similar directives for controlling salmonella in low-moisture foods, including peanut butter.

Related Article(s):
FDA Clears U.S.-Grown Hot Peppers, Focusing Salmonella Hunt on Mexican Farms

FDA Finds Salmonella Saintpaul in Water and Peppers at Mexican Farm

FDA Accused of Failing Food-Protection Role