Peanut facility: 'Nasty'

Source of Article: http://www.oaoa.com/articles/peanut_25877___article.html/plant_food.html

 

February 3, 2009 - 8:04 PM

By DAHLEEN GLANTON

BLAKELY, Ga. - David James recalled opening a tote of peanuts at the processing plant here and seeing baby mice in it. "It was filthy and nasty all around the place," said James, who used to work in shipping at the plant.

Terry Jones, a janitor, remembered the peanut oil left to soak into the floor and the unrepaired roof that constantly leaked rain.

And James Griffin, a cook at the plant, recounted how his observations led to this simple rule. "I never ate the peanut butter, and I wouldn't allow my kids to eat it."

In interviews, these three men and another employee who worked at the now-closed plant, provided an inside glimpse into the day-to-day sanitation lapses there.

Peanut Corp. of America plant is now the target of a federal criminal investigation over salmonella-contaminated products that sickened more than 500 people in 43 states and killed eight.

Items processed at the plant, which produces 3 percent of peanut products sold nationwide, have reached deep into the U.S. food chain. By Tuesday, the federal government had announced more than 100 recalls covering more than 800 products, ranging from ice cream products and candy bars to frozen Thai dinners and dog snacks.

Several Illinois firms have recalled products, according to Food and Drug Administration records. For example, Sara Lee North American Foodservice of Downers Grove recalled Chef Pierre Chocolate Peanut Butter Silk Pie, while Walgreens of Deerfield recalled four kinds of Walgreens brand candy and four types of Cafe W brand trail mix.

Major national brands of jarred peanut butter, however, were not tainted.

The peanut case is emblematic of the FDA's troubles in protecting the nation's food supply. Understaffed and spread thin, the agency routinely has turned food inspections over to the states. But watchdog groups say the states are often ill-equipped to monitor facilities where food products are stored, processed or manufactured.

In fact, the Associated Press reported Tuesday that a second Peanut Corp. of America plant, in Texas, operated for years uninspected and unlicensed by government health officials until after the company fell under investigation by the FDA.

In the coming days, President Barack Obama plans to announce a new FDA commissioner and other officials who will implement a "stricter regulatory structure" to improve oversight in food safety inspections, a White House spokesman said.

The American Peanut Council, a trade association representing all segments of the nation's peanut industry, issued a statement responding to the FDA report that the company knowingly released a product with potential salmonella contamination into the food supply. "This is a clear and unconscionable act by one manufacturer," the council stated. "This act is not by any means representative of the excellent food safety practices and procedures of the U.S. peanut industry."

A family-owned firm based in Lynchburg, Va., Peanut Corp. said last week that it did not agree with all of the FDA findings and has taken corrective measures that would be submitted to the agency in writing. A spokeswoman said she could not respond to specific allegations.

According to news reports, Georgia state inspectors found repeated cleanliness problems at the plant from 2006 to 2008, including grease and food buildup and gaps in doors that could allow rodents to enter.

Then late last year, several states reported mysterious cases of salmonella.

When Minnesota officials tested a jar of peanut butter from a nursing home on Jan. 9, results showed salmonella. The jar was traced to Peanut Corp. of America, prompting FDA inspectors to investigate the Georgia plant. FDA officials said that by invoking anti-terrorism laws, they obtained internal company records that Georgia inspectors could not. These included lab tests that found salmonella on 12 occasions in the past two years.

The FDA said Peanut Corp. sent contaminated samples to various labs until it got a negative result, then shipped the product out to vendors.

"This plant was running tests for their own information but ignoring all the positive test results," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group. "They ignored anything they did not like."

The stories of former workers at the Blakely plant illustrate what can happen when the state and federal regulatory system breaks down. The workers said problems at the plant were obvious and long-running, raising questions about why it took so long for inspectors to fully uncover them.

According to the workers, not a day went by that they didn't see roaches or rats scurrying about. And after a heavy rain, workers said, they had to step over puddles of water inside the building.

"It was pretty filthy around there," said Jones, 50, who said he worked in the sanitation department for eight months before he was laid off. "Whenever it rained back in the (peanut) butter part, it was like it was raining inside. It was coming in through the roof and the vents, but that didn't stop them from making the paste," Jones said.

Jones said he earned $6.55 an hour but he was happy to have the job, which included mopping up water and setting rat traps that sometimes caught three or four rodents a day.

A recent FDA inspection report did not note specific signs of rodents. But it did cite large openings along the sides and tops of the trailers that contained totes of raw or roasted peanuts. It also noted roaches; mold on the walls and ceiling and in the storage cooler; dirty utensils and equipment used in food preparation; and open gaps in the roof, allowing for wet conditions that could cause salmonella contamination.

"There were open gaps observed as large as inches x 2 feet at the air conditioner intakes located in the roof of the firm. Water stains were also observed on the ceiling around the air conditioner intakes," the report stated. "Additionally, there were water stains and streaks located on the edges of the skylights where rain water has been leaking into the firm. All of these openings were located in the production/packaging room. Totes of finished, roasted product and a roasted nut packaging line are located directly underneath these areas."

The former workers interviewed said they saw many of these problems and more. Griffin, 27, who was responsible for operating the roasting machines, said he made sure he cleaned them every two weeks, and he said the plant was not as dirty as it has been portrayed by some. It was not always as clean in the area where peanut butter and paste were produced, he said.

Teresa Spencer, 30, who said she worked at the plant for two years before she was laid off in 2007, complained that employees on the peanut line - not trained as professional cleaners - were often required to clean the plant and did it inefficiently.

"They needed to hire a cleanup crew because you can't do your job and clean up too," said Spencer, who worked as a quality sorter, picking rocks, sticks and bad peanuts from the conveyor line.

Another former employee, James, 36, said he worked in the shipping area for eight months before leaving last year. During that time, James said he "saw them put new stickers on buckets of peanut paste that were out of date. There were roaches, rats and everything out there.

"Some of the bags of nuts had holes in them, and you could tell rats had eaten through them. And they would put tape on them or sew them up and send them out," James said. "Sometimes there would be mold on them, and they told us to pick out the good nuts and put them in another bag."

He said the employees often talked among themselves about the conditions, but he said most workers did not complain to management because they wanted to keep their jobs.

"I'm not surprised this happened," James said. "I just hate that people died."

Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Roe contributed to this report.

 

 

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