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Lawmakers Delve Into Peanut Products' Safety

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The federal government has so far identified 600 people who've gotten sick from salmonella traced to peanuts. And scientists estimate there are 30 or more actual cases for every one that's reported. Nine deaths have been linked to the outbreak, and it's led to one of the biggest food recalls in recent years. On Capitol Hill yesterday, a House subcommittee held a hearing about the outbreak. Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, sits on the panel and showed just how personal this outbreak could be.

EDWARD MARKEY: Peanut butter was probably half of my diet as a child. It's one of those foods that is really good for you and tastes great too. But now mothers and fathers across America are worried about salmonella and don't know what to put in their kids' lunches.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Joanne Silberner was at the hearing and joins us now to talk about it. Good morning.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Emotions seem to be running pretty high there at that hearing. What was the atmosphere altogether?

SILBERNER: Well, it started out with testimony from some of the victims. There was a man who lost his 72-year-old mother. Another lost his dad. And then there was the father of a three-year-old who survived but really gave the family a scare. So we heard from those people and saw just how serious this outbreak has been.

MONTAGNE: Now, we just had another salmonella outbreak and it was thought to have been sourced to tomatoes, but then it turned out to be jalapeño and Serrano peppers. And then a couple of years back there was a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter. Are foods getting less safe?

SILBERNER: And when you look at that pepper outbreak that was last year that came from one farm in Mexico and it spread all over because the peppers were distributed all over.

MONTAGNE: And this current outbreak traced to a peanut plant; it was one peanut plant. It accounts for only one percent of the peanut market in this country, but again managed to send its product everywhere.

SILBERNER: That's right. And it's really the new food reality that companies like Kellogg or Keebler, they will buy products from all over and then put them into their products, then we eat that final product. We no longer eat locally grown foods from a single source. Foods are combined.

MONTAGNE: And so while this current outbreak affects something like 13,000 products being recalled, we should emphasize that many peanut products are not involved. And some of them have PR campaigns to say that their products are safe. Talk to us about that.

SILBERNER: Yeah. There's a Web site from a peanut group that lists products that are specifically safe. And certainly what you buy in jars in the store, the peanut butter there, that's safe. Now, the company did say that it sold some product to dollar stores. That has been recalled.

MONTAGNE: Joanne, thanks very much.

SILBERNER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Joanne Silberner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.