At least 365 schools and agencies in at least three states were shipped possibly tainted peanut products linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak as part of the federal school meal program, U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials announced on Jan. 30.

Schools and daycare centers in California, Idaho, and Minnesota received roasted peanuts and peanut butter, which are now part of a rapidly expanding recall list from the Blakely, Ga.,-based Peanut Corp. of America, said Jack Currie, spokesman for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

To date, none of the states reported illnesses as a result of students eating the recalled peanut products.

The USDA said previously that school meal programs were not affected by the large-scale recall, but Peanut Corp. has expanded its recall to all peanut products made at the plant since Jan. 1, 2007.

"The USDA is working with the small number of affected parties to identify recalled product and remove it from distribution," read a statement on the USDA’s web site. "All USDA nutrition assistance program operators are being asked to check for any product that might have been purchased commercially."

Stores have already pulled more than 430 kinds of cakes, cookies, and other food from shelves in what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is calling one of the largest product recalls in memory. The outbreak has sickened more than 500 people in the United States, with as many as eight deaths linked to the outbreak.

On Jan. 30, the federal government opened a criminal investigation into the Georgia peanut-processing plant for shipping allegedly tainted products to dozens of other food companies.

Stephen Sundlof, head of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) food safety center, said the Justice Department will investigate possible criminal violations by the Blakely peanut processing plant that shipped tainted products to dozens of other food companies.

The company reportedly shipped products that initially tested positive for salmonella after retesting and getting a negative result. The FDA’s investigations branch will assist in the probe.  The company said it is fully cooperating with the government and has stopped all production at the plant. Stewart Parnell, the firm’s president, said the recall was expanded out of “an abundance of caution.”

The company makes just 1 percent of the peanut products sold in the United States, but those products are ingredients in hundreds of other foods, from ice cream, to Asian-style sauces, to dog biscuits. Major national brands of peanut butter are not affected.

The USDA believes most of the recalled food has been consumed at the schools, daycare centers, and other facilities.

The Minnesota Department of Education says one truckload of roasted peanuts in 10-pound cans from the company was distributed to about 190 schools in January 2007.

Idaho officials were unsure late Friday how many schools were affected, state education department spokesman Melissa McGrath said.

In California, at least 175 Southern California school districts and agencies received recalled peanut products from the USDA’s school lunch commodity food distribution program, according to the state education department.

California schools were warned on Jan. 29 of an expanding recall linked to the nationwide outbreak, and state officials asked parents and volunteer groups in schools to check cupboards and refrigerators for any peanut products or raw cookie dough.

The Fontana Unified and Victor Elementary school districts in San Bernardino County were among the largest recipients of the products traced so far, according to the California Department of Education.

State officials were working with distribution centers in Southern California to trace other possible shipments to schools, said Phyllis Bramson-Paul, director of the department’s nutrition services division.

Although the newly recalled items may have been shipped as long as 2 years ago, many meal operators buy food in bulk and store it, she said.  O’Connell said some of the recalled products still were on shelves in a Southern California warehouse.

The department had previously alerted school districts about peanut butter cookies and cookie dough that was sold by fundraisers at 162 public and private schools in California between August 2008 and January 16 of this year.

School officials across the country are checking cafeterias, vending machines, and stores to be sure all recalled products are thrown away, said Erik Peterson of the School Nutrition Association. That includes warning parents that cookie dough sold by school groups as fundraisers could be tainted, he said.

"Everyone is checking," he said. "Some, out of an abundance of caution, are not serving peanut-related products at all."

Links:

FDA database of contaminated food

List of California schools and agencies that received peanut shipments