So, You Think That Peanut Butter is Safe?

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  • Take it from the health inspector, be concerned!
My container of Jif Creamy Peanut Butter. PIC by C. Eddy, 2023

The 2022 Jif Peanut Butter Outbreak and what it means to 2023

Perhaps like you, peanut butter has been a mainstay throughout most of my life: the base of inexpensive childhood jellied sandwiches and as a necessary dietary component of my adult weight training program. Good taste, fiber, easy to eat, basic make-up protein. My mother was an early adopter of Jif, and although I would later in life become a peanut butter snob, mostly in the hopes that floor sweepings and insect parts do not make it into my organic stir-required fancy brands, I have fond memories of it and its competitors, Skippy, and Peter Pan. However, the US FDA has declared Jif responsible for a multi-state salmonella outbreak (more on that below) and has demanded, by the end of February 2023, proof that their designated lots assigned for recall were adequately selected and based on scientific methods. The bottom line: is the contaminated product still on your pantry shelves and how would you know if it is?

Then tragedy struck.

But first, you should know that through my peanut butter taste cultivation, I became a broadly trained career public health advocate working in official capacity at local, state, and federal levels, including roles as SME (subject matter expert), academician/instructor at three universities, and researcher and writer. In my first weeks as a health inspector just out of undergrad studies, I was trusted to cull the food recalls (then received on fax paper) and distribute them to the senior inspectors to act.

I Bought it!

11.25.2022. At the register, the Jif totally non-organic peanut butter is on sale at Walgreens, and I am letting down my guard hoping that the multi-state salmonella outbreak that I vaguely remember involved Skippy. And Walgreens should have this, right? Supply chains have stymied my supplies of the good stuff, and I have been pre-occupied by absorbing the newest literature on the existential COVID-19 Pandemic. I am grateful to acquire the tub of PB and I am even looking forward to the unnecessary salt and sugar additions. But I have a gnawing thought that I made a mistake walking home. Before sorting my haul, I am at the computer, Jif container in hand, checking lot numbers.

The Problem with Lot Numbers.

The product matches: Jif creamy peanut butter. The UPC code matches: 5150024177. The most important final sequence of the lot code series match: 425. And the prefix lot code sequence, the last variable of concern, (mine is 2289), seems to be less than 150 outside the recalled lots (1274–2140) Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Peanut Butter | CDC. Not knowing how lot codes are designed or regulated, I am wondering how large the lots are, and how the company assured that the contamination point (in this case assumed to be untreated water from roof leaks and perhaps other sources) was accurately characterized and lots exactly identified. I already lost confidence. Now I am again short on PB. Now I need answers to my questions.

My container of Jif Creamy Peanut Butter with lot codes. PIC by C. Eddy, 2023

The FDA Warning Letter to J.M. Smucker LLC (Jif)

And I found the answers with surprising ease. As a certified professional in food safety with 30 years experience, I read the January 24, 2023, FDA Warning Letter with great interest [J.M. Smucker LLC — 638042–01/24/2023 | FDA]. Here are some important take-aways:

  • A previously collected 2010 environmental sample matches the present (2022) outbreak strain, Salmonella Senftenberg (S. Senftenberg). From the Warning Letter: “The presence of the same S. Senftenberg strain in your facility since 2010, which matched the clinical cluster, is indicative of a resident strain. On May 19, 2022, we notified you of these findings via teleconference. On May 20, 2022, you initiated a voluntary recall of Jif brand peanut butter.”

I have never even heard of the term “resident strain” in this context, and I had to check the literature in a fast search: “Transient and resident pathogens: Intra-facility genetic diversity of Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella from food production environments” (Pettengill, 2022); https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0268470

This pathogen has been “resident” in the manufacturing facility, possibly since 2010? Now I have questions for the FDA.

  • “In total, this outbreak included 21 cases from 17 states. Of 13 cases with information, all reported Jif brand peanut butter exposure (100%).”
  • The FDA Warning Letter stated that FDA experts disagree with statements asserted by Smucker inferring that contamination could have occurred after the pathogen heat kill phase.
  • The ultimatum: “Please respond in writing, within 15 working days of receipt of this letter, of the specific steps you have taken to address any violations. Include an explanation of each step being taken to prevent the recurrence of violations, as well as copies of related documentation.”

Now I am wondering if more product (maybe my tub) should be re-called. Is it time for elevation to a higher sense of urgency? After all, my product was easily bought, there may be more impacted product on shelves around the country.

My questions about lot numbers are answered…

As suspected, the FDA is hands-off on designating the affected product by lot number, while requiring the manufacturer to develop responsible systems to assure product integrity and protect public health. Smucker committed previously under regulatory legal pressure to perform root cause analyses to establish a basis for corrective action. But specifically, regarding recall lot identification and assignment, the FDA stated, “We are concerned that your use of this approach in response to a contamination event would not ensure all affected products would be identified and prevented from entering commerce. We are not aware of any data or scientific rationale to support how your (b)(4) Hold would be an effective approach to identify all product affected by a contamination event in your continuous production of RTE [ready to eat] peanut butter.”

How will the FDA respond to Smucker Response?

My public health “spider sense” seems to hold after decades of studying the risk of threats to public health from all-hazards. Now the only questions remaining are, 1) how will Smucker respond to the FDA, and 2) what will be the consequences? I’ll be watching.

THE END?

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Raymond Eddy BSc., M.P.H., REHS, CP-FS 🗻

Global Public Health; Writer: Medical & Scientific, Speculative Science; Sci-fi; Former SME ASPR/FEMA/Georgetown University; Marvel; Content is mine