Area schools untouched by tainted peanut butter

Published 5:56 pm Friday, February 6, 2009

Selma City and Dallas County schools did not receive any peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, according to local officials.

However, cafeterias in city and county schools have discontinued the use of peanut butter until the recall ends.

“We’ve just pulled it all,” said Smyly Kirkpatrick, Selma City Schools child nutrition program director.

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The government abruptly suspended all business with the Peanut Corp. of America, based in Atlanta, Thursday, as officials defended their efforts to halt the outbreak that has sickened at least 575 people in 43 states. At least eight have died. It has become one of the largest food recalls ever, including more than 1,300 products.

The Alabama State Department of Education controls the distribution of cafeteria food to Selma and Dallas County schools. Mississippi-based distributor Merchants Foodservice, which holds the Alabama contract, did not receive any contaminated products.

School officials do not want rumors and speculation to lead to chaos though.

“We don’t need a parent to be worried,” Kirkpatrick said.

Dallas County Schools child nutrition supervisor Francis Cartegena immediately sent e-mails to all principals and cafeteria managers in the county when she heard about the recall in mid-January.

Dallas County schools also pulled all products containing peanut butter. This includes food in the lunchroom and snacks that come pre-packaged in vending machines. Cartegena urged cafeteria managers to check barcodes and labels on products containing peanut butter, even though Dallas County schools are safe.

“They’ve really done a good job as far as the peanut butter’s concerned,” Cartegena said.

Sabrina Scott, cafeteria manager at C.H.A.T. Academy, said the cafeteria staff is the last line of defense between contaminated food and children.

“We have to make sure it’s safe,” Scott said. “To keep down sickness and other bacteria.”

Despite ongoing reports of illnesses linked to the company, the Agriculture department only Thursday suspended Peanut Corp. from participating in government contract programs, for at least a year. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also removed Stewart Parnell, president of the company, from USDA’s Peanut Standards Board.

The company’s actions indicate that it “lacks business integrity and business honesty, which seriously and directly hinders its ability to do business with the federal government,” said David Shipman, acting administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said in a statement.

The recalled foods used ingredients from the Peanut Corp. processing plant in Blakely, Ga. While the outbreak appears to be slowing down, new illnesses are still being reported.

The Agriculture Department initially said that school meal programs were not affected by the large-scale recall. But that changed when Peanut Corp. expanded its recall to all peanut products made at the plant since Jan. 1, 2007.