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Health, Science, Environment

Beacon update: St. Louis non-profit up and running after salmonella scare but facing challenges

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2009 - The last year has been a good but a tough one for Meds and Foods for Kids. The local non-profit manufactures and distributes RUTF, or ready to use therapeutic foods, in Haiti. Medika Mamba, as it's known there, uses what's essentially fortified peanut butter to treat malnourished children, and with much success.

Over the past two years, the organization has treated 2,400 children at two public hospitals and three rural clinics in Haiti. They've trained medical professionals and estimate that 75 percent of the children treated have recovered.

Here's the rub.

Remember the salmonella scare from peanut butter from the beginning of the year? While Meds and Foods for Kids is cultivating peanuts in Haiti, it does take donations, and some of those donations came from the Peanut Corp. of America, which was found to have salmonella in its peanut butter.

Thought MFK rigorously tests all supplies, it still had to shut down production earlier this year. And though it could prove the its fortified peanut butter was safe, the Food and Drug Administration still ordered the group to destroy any suspected batches.

Dr. Patricia Wolff, founder and executive director of MFK and a pediatrician in St. Louis, was in Haiti when contacted for an update on MFK.

MFK's good news was that it had just passed a USAID international food safety audit, she said in an e-mail.

"We are the first and only food manufacturers in Haiti to do this. This means that USAID has put us on their validated suppliers list. We hope they will actually buy from us (with your tax dollars and mine) instead of from the for-profit French or (Dominican) Republic companies they have been buying from."

The bad news is that the World Bank grant for MFK's partnership with the public sector in the north of Haiti ends this month.

"These malnourished children now have nowhere to go," Wolff wrote. "We need funding to keep the hospital's malnutrition program open."

MFK is looking for other sources of funding for the project and is asking donors for $40,000 to get through until that funding is secure.

But even with the money, the challenges remain.

In a letter to donors, Wolff says Haiti has 250,000 malnourished children. MFK's goal is to save 50,000 of those in the next five years.

Read the Beacon's earlier story below. 

When news broke of the peanut butter recall early this year, many people threw away jars, packages of crackers and anything suspected of salmonella contamination.

The nationwide recall actually wound up stretched much farther than this country's borders.

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On Jan. 13, the Food and Drug Administration recalled products from the Peanut Corporation of America. Six days later, Peanut Corp. informed Meds and Foods for Kids of the possible contamination of a batch they'd donated to the St. Louis-based non-profit that treats malnutrition in Haiti.

Luckily for Meds and Foods, they knew exactly what to do, says Steve Taviner, operations officer.

"It's just that we'd never done it."

Meds and Foods for Kids was founded in 2004 by St. Louis pediatrician Dr. Patricia Wolff after visiting Project Peanut Butter in Malawi. Project Peanut Butter, founded by Dr. Mark Manary of St. Louis, uses "ready-to-use therapeutic food," or RUTF, to combat pediatric malnutrition. 

In Malawi, the peanut butter used by Project Peanut Butter comes from local crops, all adhering to stringent international food-safety standards.

In Haiti, Meds and Foods follows those same standards in creating what is essentially fortified peanut butter. But because peanut farming in Haiti is still developing, the organization accepts donations between crops.

"Nice peanut butter makers in America, when they find out about us, say, oh, we can donate some peanut butter," Taviner says.

Enter the Peanut Corporation of America.

In October and November 2008, Meds and Foods for Kids got two shipments of peanut paste from Peanut Corp.

And after the recalls and outbreaks of salmonella early this year, on Jan. 20, Meds and Foods conducted what Wolff calls a fire drill.

The organization knew none of its product was contaminated, thanks to its stringent controls. Using an on-site microbiological lab, the group tests for food pathogens each week, including aflatoxin and salmonella.

And because Meds and Foods also tracks each shipment, knows which batches of peanuts go into them and where the fortified peanute butter goes, it knew where the suspect batches were.

Meds and Foods was ordered by the FDA to recall the batches and soon set out around the country gathering the fortified peanut butter from orphanages, hospitals and other private and public institutions.

"It was more of an aggravation and a worry and a PR problem," says Wolff, who is also a clinical professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine. "It wasn't really a health problem."

But the PR problem was a big one.

In the midst of the recall, the Haitian government reported a public health warning about RUTF on the radio. But soon, Meds and Foods had certificates of analysis that both the original paste and the fortified peanut butter were salmonella free, which it already knew, thanks to all the routine testing.

The organization also sent samples to an independent lab in Florida and got the same results.

After an expanded recall of Peanut Corp.'s products and more of Meds and Foods' RUTF, however, Haiti's minister of health asked Meds and Foods to shut down production.

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On Feb. 2, after more lab tests proved the fortified peanut butter was safe, Meds and Foods was allowed to begin production again, though it had to destroy all the suspected RUTF in a bonfire. The group replaced all the confiscated peanut butter for organizations depending on it, and to date, Wolff says, there have been no reports of contamination or illness due to salmonella from peanut products.

Some organizations with the suspected RUTF had to go without it, however, interrupting treatment.

When the goal is the bottom line, safety can be forgotten, says Mardi Manary, administrator with Project Peanut Butter.

"It comes down to shoddy business practices in the U.S.," she said. "That's the beginning and the end of it. ... Peanuts do not grow salmonella. Rat poop on peanuts grows salmonella."

But because of the crisis in the United States, Meds and Foods recently had to stop production because it's between peanut crops in Haiti.

"That has never happened to us before," Wolff says.

In the next week or so, she says the organization will be running again. She says she's learned her organization was doing everything right. Wolff hopes that the food industry in the United States will now take safety more seriously and adhere to high standards. For now, Meds and Foods will have to continue using donated peanut butter from the United States, and she hopes companies here work as hard as she does to ensure the product they're providing is safe.

Though the recall caused a crisis, Wolff really surprised by anything any more.

"We're kind of used to these things here in Haiti," she says. "It just feels like one more thing."

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