Sep 6, 2022 - Economy & Business

Scoop: Jif factory had pattern of salmonella incidents, FDA document shows

Illustration of a slice of bread with peanut butter in the shape of a worried face

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Jif peanut butter factory responsible for a salmonella outbreak in May had a pattern of salmonella incidents in recent years, according to inspection documents obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The J.M. Smucker-owned plant in Lexington, Kentucky, was shuttered for weeks in the spring after a nationwide outbreak triggered a costly recall of Jif peanut butter and other products.

Driving the news: Plant officials recorded 12 instances of salmonella found in “routine environmental swabbing” and 11 instances of salmonella found in finished peanut butter from 2017 through 2022, according to an FDA inspection report acquired by Axios through the Freedom of Information Act.

  • None of the prior salmonella incidents detected at the plant resulted in product recalls or any known illnesses, according to Smucker. But the report suggests that the company may have been slow to respond to underlying issues at the plant, says Peter Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner.

What they're saying: “It was an oversight or they chose to ignore it on purpose,” says Pitts, now co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, who reviewed the document at Axios’ request.

  • “It’s shocking to me that a company as large as Smucker wouldn’t have its act together relative to fixing serious quality problems.”

The other side: Smucker spokesperson Frank Cirillo said in an email that the company “followed our standard food safety protocols to ensure that any potential issue was remediated appropriately. We are confident in the aggressive steps that were taken to address the events.”

  • “Raw agricultural products, such as peanuts, can carry naturally occurring pathogens, and we employ strict food safety practices to prevent pathogens from remaining in finished product,” Cirillo said, noting that the company analyzes “thousands of peanut butter samples every single day and hundreds of environmental samples every month” and destroys the product when it falls short of Jif’s quality standards.

Catch up fast: At least 21 people were sickened, including four who were hospitalized, in the May outbreak tied to Jif. It affected people in no fewer than 17 states, according to the FDA.

  • "Most people who get ill from salmonella have diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps," the CDC says. "Symptoms usually begin 6 hours to 6 days after infection and last 4 to 7 days."

What they found: Jif most recently “identified a breach” in the machinery at its Lexington plant from Feb. 17-18, allowing contamination of peanut roasting equipment, but failed to report the discovery to the FDA, according to inspectors.

  • The breach led to multiple puddles of water and rainwater that seeped into the systems and came into contact with roasted peanuts, inspectors found.
  • “Your equipment and utensils were not designed and constructed to be adequately cleaned and maintained to protect against contamination,” the inspectors added in their report.
  • Previous instances of salmonella discoveries in Jif peanut butter at the plant included incidents as recent as Oct. 22, Dec. 25, Feb. 4 and Feb. 9-10.

The impact: “Standing water — it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet for salmonella,” Pitts said. “It’s just not acceptable, period.”

Of note: The Jif recall hit Smucker with an estimated $90 million in direct costs — including customer returns, fees and inventory that had to be discarded — plus significant lost sales and reduced profits from plant downtime, according to public filings.

  • The incident, which has drawn at least five lawsuits seeking class-action status, has also led to empty shelves of peanut butter throughout the country. The Lexington plant resumed making Jif products in June but is not expected to resupply store shelves to full stock until the end of the year.
  • "The health and safety of our consumers remains our top priority and we are confident our industry-leading safety and quality processes support our ability to continue to deliver on this commitment,” Cirillo said.

What’s next: The FDA has said it's preparing a report on its findings.

  • "In addition to our oversight work, the FDA stresses the importance of a company’s quality systems and culture," an FDA spokesperson said in a statement to Axios.
  • "Ultimately, when problems are found it is the responsibility of the firm to correct those issues to keep consumers safe."

What we're watching: “I hope somebody upstairs in [Smucker] HQ recognizes the problem here and takes it to heart and investigates why the problem happens,” Pitts said.

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