E. coli outbreak involving peanut butter substitute reaches Florida

The Centers for Disease Control says the states touched by the SoyNut Butter peanut subsitute E. Coli outbreak now number 12 and includes Florida.

Meanwhile, Thursday, the FDA shut down the Kentucky-based producer of the tainted product, Dixie Dew Products after spotting inspection violations including pipes dripping into food kettles and no hot water or soap for food handlers to wash their hands. Dixie Dew produces products for organic food companies, too, so more recalls could be coming.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler, an attorney in four of the five lawsuits filed by E. coli victims in this outbreak, said in an email to the Miami Herald, “This inspection report reads far worse than the 483’s from the Peanut Corp of America (Salmonella – over 700 sick with nine deaths – 28-year prison sentence for owner) or Peter Pan (Salmonella – over 700 sick - $11 million fine). I got court orders to go into both of those plants and am working on doing the same here. What a mess.”

The CDC hopes the E. coli outbreak remains relatively contained. Thursday’s update put the numbers at 29 infected people in 12 states. Single cases in Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts put them on a list with Oregon (nine), California (five), Arizona (four), Washington (two), Virginia (two), Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey and Wisconsin (one each). Because E. coli can take two to three weeks to develop, these infection statistics go only until March 13.

That’s six days after the SoyNut Butter Company recalled all its I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter and Granola products. Last week, SoyNut Butter customer Pro Sports Line recalled over 36,000 Yogurt Peanut Crunch Bars. Last week is also when SoyNut Butter’s previously unnamed contractor, Dixie Dew Products, was revealed.

It’s an arrangement less common in niche products, such as peanut allergy substitutes, than in mass marketed products. In the Peter Pan peanut butter situation Marler mentioned, the same ConAgra-made peanut butter was sold under the brands Peter Pan and Walmart Great Value.

“While the FDA made the right decision in shutting down the Dixie Dew plant, the agency should take another step forward and reverse its policy of withholding the names and locations of stores and schools where recalled food products are sold,” U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a e-mailed statement. “As we have seen with Dixie Dew, it is irresponsible and insufficient to rely on the good faith of food corporations to provide all the necessary recall information. Americans deserve to know these details to ensure their health and safety.”

The FDA wouldn’t reveal Dixie Dew as the maker of the soy butter before the shut down, but inspected the food producer’s Erlanger, Kentucky, facility seven times from March 3-15. Some excerpts (the “you” in the quotes is Dixie Dew President Robert Carl):

▪ During a SoyNut Butter production run, “a clear liquid substance was observed dripping intermittently from a hole in a ceiling tile in your firm’s Soy Butter Processing Room and landing on the Processing Room floor and splashing on food manufacturing equipment below. The dripping liquid persisted throughout the duration of the production run which spanned from approximately [redacted]. According to you, the liquid was water from a leaking pipe which runs above the ceiling tiles.”

▪ “According to you and your Plant Manager, your temperature probe and chart recorder, initially engineered to verify and record [redacted] in the large mixing kettle is not functioning properly and has not been used for well over a year.”

▪ The plant manager told an inspector that SoyNut Butter left over from a production run stays in the kettle overnight or on weekends, when the kettle is shut off, and may still be there when production next restarts.

▪ The plant manager told an inspector the bulk soy oil tote used to make SoyNut Butter was never cleaned.

▪ A nozzle in the SoyNut Butter processing room used in making the product was observed laying in standing water on the floor.

▪ “There was no hot water to the hand-washing sink or to the two-compartment sink located in the SoyNut Butter processing room. According to your maintenance supervisor, the hot water tank for these sinks has been out of repair for two years. Additionally, the hand soap dispenser for the hand sink was not operable.”

▪ “You and your Plant Manager have stated you have not disassembled any SoyNut Butter processing equipment and all associated piping for cleaning and sanitizing since December of 2015.”

▪ “...an opened [redacted] bag in box [redacted] product in your firm’s walk-in cooler was observed with an apparent 3-inch diameter rodent defiled marking that penetrated the box and the product. Additionally, apparent mold was growing on the surface of the butter.”

▪ “An apparent fly infestation was observed in your firm’s Quality Control and Product Development Laboratory on March 13, 2017. Small, apparent flies and larvae, too numerous to count, were inside an unplugged chest freezer...The small apparent flies were observed along the laboratory counters and flying throughout the laboratory.”

The FDA issued a Suspension of Food Facility Registration Order Tuesday.

Thursday’s announcement said, “The Suspension Order applies to the entire facility. While the order is in effect, no food product may leave the facility for sale or distribution. The FDA will reinstate Dixie Dew’s food facility registration only when the agency determines that adequate grounds do not exist to continue the suspension of registration.”

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal