Peanut butter recalled for potential Salmonella contamination has landed on school lunch trays across the country and although children are among those most at risk for foodborne illness, parents nationwide have been left in the dark. If food served to your child at school is part of a recall, how would you know?
Most likely you wouldn’t.
Last week, 16 states that participate in the National School Lunch Program were told that some items they had received were among the hundreds of products containing peanut butter or nut products made by Sunland Inc. of Portales, NM, being recalled for potential Salmonella contamination, Food Poisoning Bulletin has learned. Those products include Smucker’s Uncrustables made by the J.M.Smucker Co. of Orrville, Ohio and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cracker snacks and desserts made by Advance Pierre of Cincinnati and bulk jars of peanut butter made by Sunland. Schools were told not to serve these products to students, to isolate them from other products and to keep them on a food safety hold until further notice.
By all accounts that’s what happened. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the National School Lunch Program, became aware of a problem and notified the states affected. Then the states notified the schools and the products were removed. Who notified the parents? Nobody.
Although the USDA administers the National School Lunch Program, it does not post information on its website about food items in the program that are subject to recall. Nor is that information posted on the National School Lunch Program site. When asked why, Alyn Kiel, a USDA spokeswoman, said peanut butter is not among the items regulated by the USDA, but rather by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “where the recall information has been posted.”
As of October 17, the Smucker’s recall had not been listed on the FDA’s site. And while it’s true that the initial Sunland recall was posted on the FDA website on September 24, the recall does not mention the company’s participation in the school lunch program. The same is true for Advance Pierre, whose voluntary recall posted on the FDA website October 11, makes no mention of the company’s participation in the school lunch program. So, even if you were a parent who regularly surfed the FDA recall page you would still have no way of knowing that potentially tainted foods had made their way into your child’s school lunch.
Because states participating in the National School Lunch Program don’t all receive the same foods, it makes more sense for the states or schools rather than the USDA to be the ones to notify parents, Kiel suggested. In Minnesota, one of the 16 states that received products involved in the Sunland recall, the Smucker’s recall was posted on the state education department’s website. The recall does not mention the school lunch program. But it’s possible that it could be inferred by a parent who chose to surf that website looking for food safety information and thought to click “School Support,” then “Food and Nutrition Program Administration,” then “Food Distribution” and then “Current Holds and Recalls.”
Why not make it easier to find this information when the health of millions of children is involved? Kiel’s response is that the USDA did its job by notifying states as soon as it became aware of the problem. It is unclear at this point why it took three weeks after the initial recall for USDA to discover it had a Sunland problem.
At least one product made by Sunland, Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Salted Peanut Butter made with Sea Salt, has been linked to a 19-state Salmonella outbreak that has sickened 35 people, most of whom are children under 10. Kiel cautions that there have been no confirmed illnesses associated with peanut butter served through the school lunch program. But how could there be? Cases of food poisoning are confirmed by culturing a stool sample for foodborne pathogens. How would the parent or physician know to culture for Salmonella if they were not aware of potential exposure?
By they way, the symptoms of Salmonella poisoning are diarrhea, which is sometimes bloody, fever and abdominal cramps which develop 12 to 72 hours after exposure. If your child has these symptoms, see a health care provider. And if you have a story about your experience with the Sunland recall and your school lunch program, let us know.