Officials call for criminal probe into salmonella recall

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Updated 36m ago 


From staff and wire reports

Senior 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 safety regulations.

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."

In Georgia, 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 field investigations.

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 inspectors.

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 different issue."

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise and Julie Schmit, USA TODAY; Associated Press



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