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Minnesota food detectives solve peanut butter mystery

Georgia State Senator John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, holds up a jar of peanut butter while proposing food processors be required to share internal reports with state inspectors, during a legislative session in the senate chamber Thursday Jan. 29, 2009, in Atlanta. Recent salmonella cases have been tracked back to a processing facility in Georgia. Peter Pan peanut butter was not one of the brands affected by the recall. (AP Photo/John Amis)

ST. PAUL -- Nine dead, three in Minnesota, with 654 sick in 44 states.

It almost sounds like terrorists spreading a deadly disease. Federal, state and local investigative agencies nationwide sprang into action well before numbers rose that high.

There were few clues about why Americans were getting sick and dying.

Then, three days before Christmas last year, more than three months after the first person took ill, the Minnesota Health Department's Stephanie Meyer noticed that victims in her state had one thing in common -- they all ate peanut butter.

But the favorite snack of many a child was an unlikely cause for the national illness outbreak.

"We couldn't rule anything out and couldn't rule anything in," Meyer's fellow epidemiologist, Carlota Medus, said.

By Jan. 9, Meyer, Medus and their colleagues in Minnesota's agriculture and health departments had proof that bad peanut butter was being served, and within a few days they traced it to a Georgia peanut butter and peanut paste maker.

No one knows how many lives those Minnesota state workers saved, or how many Americans will remain healthy because of their work, their food detective work.

Food inspectors in the Agriculture Department and disease prevention and control experts in the Health Department -- and laboratory technicians in both departments -- work hand-in-glove together on a daily basis to trace food-borne illnesses of all types. It is all in a day's work for them, but in an outbreak that rocked the country's food supply, their efforts rose to another level.

Like last year when workers in those two agencies found jalapeno peppers were to blame for a salmonella outbreak -- not tomatoes as others suspected -- Minnesota led the way to solving the peanut butter salmonella typhimurium outbreak.

"For the sake of public health, we moved quickly," the Agriculture Department's Ben Miller said.

Minnesotans shared their information with federal health authorities, as well as those in other states, and the outbreak has slowed almost to a stop.

However, the outbreak produced the country's largest food recall, which now stands at more than 2,300 products that contain peanut butter or peanut paste made in a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakeley, Ga. Even pet food is affected.

The case was solved just like police detectives solve murders -- looking over the details time and time again.

The story began in early September, when a few Americans began getting sick due to salmonella, an intestinal tract bacteria that can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It can be fatal, especially to children and the elderly.

Minnesotans began getting sick, later blamed on salmonella, in mid-November.

Salmonella typhimurium, the particular strain affecting people, gradually became more common as 2008 entered its last month. Federal health authorities held regular conference calls with health experts from states reporting the still-developing outbreak.

Peanut butter and chicken were suspected, but evidence was sketchy at best.

On Dec. 21, with nine Minnesota cases matching the national outbreak strain, Shirley Mae Almer of Perham died in a Brainerd nursing home. Her son, Jeff, thinks she was the first fatality of the outbreak (government health officials do not discuss specific cases, citing privacy laws, so do not confirm that she was the first).

The next day, three new cases were reported at the nursing home and Meyer began to suspect peanut butter as the outbreak's cause.

From there, it was old-fashioned detective work that allowed Minnesota's agriculture and health departments to solve the case.

Miller and Medus said that work involved finding common thread in the cases.

State officials asked affected nursing homes and schools to tell them where they bought their peanut butter.

The invoices led them to Sysco Food Services in Fargo, N.D., a branch of a nationwide food wholesaler that serves institutions such as schools, nursing homes and restaurants.

Sysco sold King Nut peanut butter to all Minnesota's affected institutions.

With that information in hand by Jan. 5, an Agriculture Department food inspector was dispatched to the Brainerd nursing home to retrieve an opened five-pound tub of the peanut butter.

On Jan. 9, with tests showing salmonella in the peanut butter, Minnesota officials warned institutions to stop using the product. That was Friday. By Monday, Minnesota laboratory tests proved King Nut peanut butter made in Georgia was the culprit.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.