From staff and wire reports
congressional and state officials called Wednesday for a federal probe of
possible criminal violations at a Georgia peanut processing plant
linked to the nationwide salmonella outbreak.
The government Tuesday accused the peanut butter
manufacturer Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) of shipping products in 2007 and
2008 after internal tests found bacterial contamination, violating food
The company's actions "can only be described as
reprehensible and criminal," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who
oversees Food and Drug Administration funding. "Not only did this
company knowingly sell tainted products, it shopped for a laboratory that
would provide the acceptable results they were seeking. This behavior
represents the worst of our current food safety regulatory system."
the state's top agriculture official joined DeLauro in asking the Justice
Department to determine if the case warrants criminal prosecution.
"They tried to hide it so they could sell
it," said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "Now
they've caused a mammoth problem that could destroy their company — and it
could destroy the peanut industry."
There was no immediate response from Peanut Corp.,
which owns the Blakely, Ga.,
processing plant at the center of the investigation. The company has
previously said it fully cooperated with the salmonella investigation.
Irvin, the Georgia agriculture official,
said he was outraged by the company's actions and said a state criminal
probe was possible. He would not, however, specify which Georgia
laws the company may have violated for fear it would help the company start
planning its defense.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers were drafting a plan to
require food makers to report the results of internal inspections to state
officials, something the peanut plant in Blakely wasn't required to do.
Peanut butter and peanut paste manufactured by Peanut
Corp. has been tied to the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 501 people
in 43 states and is believed to have contributed to eight deaths.
The FDA said that its inspection of the plant found
records of 12 instances in which plant officials identified salmonella in
ingredients or finished products. The products should not have been
shipped, the FDA says. PCA took no steps to address cleaning after finding
the salmonella, says Michael Rogers, director of the FDA's division of
In some instances, the company had the product tested
again by a different laboratory and got a clean test result, FDA officials
said in a telephone conference with reporters.
It's quite possible that a retest would miss the
salmonella, says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's
Center for Food Safety. The product should have been destroyed after the
first positive test result, he says.
This outbreak is hitting children especially hard, says
Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control.
Half of those stricken are younger than 16, and
21% are under 5, Tauxe says. While PCA's peanut butter was sold in bulk to institutions,
its peanut paste has been used as an ingredient in snack foods.
The FDA says it has not found the exact outbreak strain
in the plant, but it has been found in tubs of peanut butter made at the
plant, considered the sole source of the contamination.
"It's incredibly negligent," says William
Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner. Hubbard questions why the FDA
didn't act sooner, given the sanitation violations found by state
Previous inspection reports by the Georgia Department
of Agriculture found deficiencies in how well the plant was cleaned.
In a statement issued Tuesday, PCA said it "has
cooperated fully with FDA from day one during the course of this
investigation. We have shared with them every record that they have asked
for that is in our possession, and we will continue to do so."
Shipping products known to be contaminated is "a
violation of the law," says the FDA's Stephen Sundlof.
"Whether or not there was any criminal activity involved is a
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise and Julie Schmit, USA
TODAY; Associated Press