Cracking the cases can take some time. Last spring, during an outbreak of Salmonella that ultimately sickened at least 425 people in 28 states, it took health officials two weeks just to narrow the likely cause to seafood, with sushi as a prime suspect. Then, investigators struggled to identify the specific ingredient making people sick. If it was spicy tuna rolls, which many people had reported eating before becoming ill, was it the mayonnaise, the sesame seeds, the tuna, the hot sauce, the seaweed, or the rice?
A month into the investigation, the CDC issued a press release notifying reporters that there was a nationwide outbreak that might be linked to sushi, but gave no further details. “At this time . . . consumers are not being advised to avoid any specific foods or restaurants,” read the release.
Nine days later, the Food and Drug Administration announced that Moon Marine USA Corporation was recalling 58,828 pounds of tuna scrape, which is flesh scraped off the bones of tuna and ground into a raw paste. The scrape, sourced from India, was not sold directly to consumers, but was widely used by restaurants and grocery stores to make inexpensive sushi rolls and other seafood products.
Health officials advised consumers to ask their sushi joints if they used tuna scrape from Moon Marine before consuming tuna rolls. This update came six weeks after the FDA’s outbreak-investigation team was first notified of a cluster of matching Salmonella illnesses. Meanwhile, consumers were unknowingly eating the contaminated scrape. It wasn’t until federal health officials linked the illnesses to a specific food product that journalists were able to pass on critical information to their readers and viewers. In an email to reporters four days after the recall, the cdc announced that 48 more people had been connected to the outbreak since it announced its investigation.
The 2009 peanut-butter outbreak took two months to solve, and the investigation revealed a stunningly complex food chain. “That investigation was complicated because there wasn’t really one food vehicle—it wasn’t just peanut butter, it wasn’t just peanut-butter crackers,” says Bill Keene, a senior epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Services, who worked on the outbreak.
After Jake Hurley had recovered, Keene’s team found the guilty strain of Salmonella in an open package of Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter at the Hurley’s home, a piece of evidence that helped investigators understand just how widely the contaminated peanut butter had been used in other food products.
Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), the company implicated in the outbreak, processed less than 2 percent of the US peanut supply, but its contaminated peanut butter and peanut paste were ingredients in thousands of products—from Clif Bars to prepackaged Pad Thai and ice cream. Several types of pet food also were recalled.
Kellogg recalled the crackers that made Jake sick in January 2009, but dozens of other companies were still announcing recalls several months later. The FDA had to launch a searchable database to assist consumers who wanted to check the products in their pantry, as many of the recalled food items were shelf-stable.
In February 2009, Congress began an inquiry into what had gone wrong. The outbreak had not only hospitalized people in nearly every state, but it had cost the food industry hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales and product-recall costs. Lawmakers expressed outrage over the conditions FDA inspectors found at PCA. The company’s Blakely, GA, plant had pest problems, mold, a leaky roof that could have allowed bird feces to drop onto food surfaces, and documents showed company employees had ignored positive Salmonella tests. As The Oregonian’s Lynne Terry later reported, “The hearings revealed a food-safety network in tatters. [PCA’s] filthy plants were not adequately inspected, and the company’s owner, who complained in emails that positive Salmonella tests were costing him money, ordered contaminated food shipped to customers.”
With Jake by his side, Peter Hurley testified at one of the hearings. Stewart Parnell, the CEO of Peanut Corporation of America, also was called to testify. He pleaded the Fifth.