Peanut Plant Knew of Contamination, Officials Say

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Published: January 28, 2009

The Georgia peanut plant linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people and sickened more than 500 knew on at least 12 occasions over the past two years that its product was contaminated but sold it anyway, according to federal officials.

Federal Inspectional Report (pdf)

Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the outbreak to Peanut Corporation of America’s plant in Blakely, Ga. And on Jan. 9, investigators descended on the plant for a thorough inspection.

Michael Rogers, director of the division of filed investigations at the F.D.A., said that the inspectional team found records showing that on at least 12 occasions between 2007 and 2008, the company’s own tests of its product “identified some type of salmonella and released a product after it was retested, in some cases by a different laboratory.”

Mr. Rogers said the positive test results should have led the company to take actions to eliminate the contamination. “It’s significant because, at the point at which salmonella was identified, it shouldn’t be there, based on the manufacturing process that’s designed to mitigate salmonella, actually eliminate it.”

The firm took no steps to clean its plant after the test results alerted the company to the contamination, and the inspection team found problems with the plant’s routine cleaning procedures as well, Mr. Rogers said.

Retesting contaminated product until it tests clean and then selling that product is not appropriate, according to agency officials. “This is a practice that the firm should not have engaged in,” Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the agency’s food center said on Tuesday.

Calls to the Peanut Corporation on Wednesday were not immediately returned. But in a statement to reporters, George Clarke, a spokesman for the company, said it “has cooperated fully with F.D.A. from Day 1 during the course of this investigation.” He added, “We have shared with them every record that they have asked for that is in our possession, and we will continue to do so.”

More than 100 children under the age of 5 have been sickened, and illnesses have been reported in at least 43 states, said Dr. Robert Tauze, deputy director of the Division of Food Borne Bacteria and Mycotic Diseases at the disease centers. Figures from the centers indicate that Ohio, California, Massachusetts, Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota have reported the most cases.

The company’s peanut products are used primarily at institutions like schools and nursing homes and as ingredients in commercial snack products. As of Wednesday, more than 125 products have been recalled.

The plant where the contamination was discovered, located in the southwestern corner of Georgia, has a history of sanitation lapses. Inspection reports provided to The New York Times by Georgia officials indicated this week that the company was cited on numerous occasions in 2006 and 2007 for having dirty surfaces and dirt buildup throughout its plants. It was found to be in violation of cleanliness standards in 2008 as well.

Inspections by the State Agriculture Department found areas of rust that could flake into food, gaps in warehouse doors large enough for rodents to get through, unmarked spray bottles and containers and numerous violations of other practices designed to prevent food contamination. The plant was recently shut down.

A typical entry from an inspection report, dated Aug. 23, 2007, said: “The food-contact surfaces of re-work kettle in the butter room department were not properly cleaned and sanitized.” Another entry noted: “The food-contact surfaces of the bulk oil roast transfer belt” in a particular room “were not properly cleaned and sanitized. The food-contact surfaces of pan without wheels in the blanching department were not properly cleaned and sanitized.”

A code violation in the same report observed “clean peanut butter buckets stored uncovered,” while another cited a “wiping cloth” to “cover crack on surge bin.” Tests on samples gathered on the day of that inspection were negative for salmonella.

Two inspection reports from 2008 found the plant to be out of compliance with practices for making sure “food and non-food contact surfaces were cleanable, properly designed, constructed and used.”

The state performs the inspections on behalf of the Food and Drug Administration as part of a contractual agreement with the federal agency, officials said.

Anahad O’Connor and Roni Caryn Rabin contributed reporting.



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