Bill Rector of Blaine, Wash., didn’t know about a nationwide recall of peanut butter products until he and his 3-year-old daughter already had been hospitalized with salmonella poisoning.
“That's the first we heard of it,” he said.
But that was back in January, when the 32-year-old meat cutter said he and his toddler were sickened by Austin Quality Foods crackers linked to a still-widening food poisoning outbreak. Since then, word has spread, he said.
Or so you’d think.
Nearly two months after the initial recalls, and despite massive publicity about the salmonella scare linked to faulty practices at a Georgia peanut processing plant, federal health officials are worried that some consumers still haven’t gotten the message.
Half of new cases tied to crackers
About half of the new cases of confirmed salmonella infection continue to show up in people who ate Austin or Keebler peanut butter crackers manufactured by the Kellogg Co., according to officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That includes illnesses that began as recently as Feb. 13, long after retailers and health officials thought they’d issued adequate warnings.
“That’s somebody who got sick even after the news got out,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, chief of the CDC’s foodborne disease program. “Not everybody gets the message — and not everybody acts on it.”
The crackers are only a fraction of more than 3,400 products recalled for fear of contamination linked to food processing plants run by the now-bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America. Still, they account for the largest share of the food poisoning cases that have sickened 684 people in 46 states and Canada and contributed to nine deaths.
That’s likely because it appears that the most virulent doses of salmonella bacteria showed up in the Austin and Keebler crackers and in King Nut brand peanut butter that went to certain health care facilities, said Ernest Julian, who heads an industry workgroup for the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response.
"The biggest slug of contamination was associated with those products," he said.
But part of the problem also may be that many of the recalled foods can last a while and families might not have checked their cupboards, Tauxe said.
A memo to military families from Kellogg’s pegs the shelf life of the Austin Toasty Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers and Cheese and Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers Crackers at 240 days, with a product safety guideline that extends to 450 days.
“I’m worried that they still have them,” Tauxe said.
Massive recalls sparking ‘mass confusion’
Part of the problem may also be with the sheer size and scope of the recalls, which are continuing daily, and the difficulty of communicating to so many stores and consumers, Julian added.
“It’s creating mass confusion in the food industry,” Julian said. “How do you tell the good stuff from the bad stuff?”
Spot-checks of retailers suggest that some stores may not have pulled all recalled products, or that they may have put new shipments of food on shelves, even though the new products also were included in the recall, Julian said.
A spokeswoman for Kellogg’s said the firm was the first to recall products and that it has aggressively worked with its employees and a third-party vendor to warn consumers about the problem and to remove potentially tainted foods from public reach.
“The vast majority of Austin and Keebler peanut butter crackers are now off shelf,” Kris Charles, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
The federal Food and Drug Administration requests, but does not require, proof that recalled products have been destroyed, a spokesman said. Currently, there is no system to monitor recalls, Julian noted.
Retailers and health officials are continuing to urge consumers to check the FDA’s recall list frequently and to avoid the products identified. Salmonella infections are usually mild, but they can be severe and, in some cases, life threatening.
Bill for salmonella treatment? $30,000
There are no more peanut butter crackers at Bill Rector’s house, said the father of Payton, 3, and two other daughters, Krimson, 11, and Abigail, 9. Bill and Payton were the only family members who became ill from the snacks.
Salmonella poisoning linked to the outbreak was confirmed in Payton, who had to be hospitalized for days. Bill Rector’s illness was suspected, but not confirmed, he said. Bills for their care have totaled more than $30,000, Rector said, with about $6,000 not covered by health insurance.
Because Rector works with food, he also lost two weeks of work until state health officials cleared him to return.
Rector and his wife, Shannon, 29, have sought the services of Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food safety cases. They hope to recover the costs of medical expenses.
“It’s pretty scary,” said Rector. “I wasn’t worried for myself as much as for my daughter.”
A salmonella infection in a toddler can be severe, even life threatening, Rector noted. And news that PCA officials knew the peanut products were contaminated and released them anyway just makes him mad.
“It’s a pretty bad situation,” he said. “It’s pretty wrong.”