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Lawmakers Call for Criminal Probe at Peanut Plant

U.S. health officials say company had distributed questionable peanut butter products in 2007 and 2008, after internal salmonella testing came up positive

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 28 (HealthDay News) -- The Georgia facility that produced the peanut butter and peanut paste involved in the current salmonella outbreak had distributed questionable peanut butter product in the past, U.S. health officials said Tuesday.

The revelation prompted Congressional and Georgia officials to call Wednesday for a federal probe of possible criminal violations at the plant, the Associated Press reported.

From 2007 into 2008, Peanut Corp. of America, which owns the now-closed Blakely, Ga., plant, shipped peanut butter that it knew had been contaminated with salmonella, according to key officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The FDA team identified 12 instances where the firm, as part of its own internal testing program, identified some type of salmonella and released a product after it was retested," Michael Rogers, director of FDA's division of field investigations in the Office of Regional Operations, said during a late afternoon teleconference Tuesday.

While there were no reports of illness as a result of that distribution, "salmonella shouldn't be there," Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said during the teleconference. "It had an adverse effect on the quality of the product, making it adulterated."

"This was clearly a violation of 'good manufacturing practice standards.' This is a practice that the firm should not have engaged in," Sundlof added. "That is a violation of law."

Inspection reports released Wednesday from FDA investigators at the plant two weeks ago cite a litany of safety and sanitation problems and a trail of products that were sent out after being retested to clear the salmonella contaminants.

The investigation cited roaches, mold and signs of a leaking roof among numerous problems inspectors uncovered.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees FDA funding, said Wednesday that Peanut Corp.'s actions "can only be described as reprehensible and criminal," according to the AP.

"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," DeLauro added.

The American Peanut Council also reacted strongly to the disclosures late Tuesday.

"The findings of the FDA report can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer, which stands alone in an industry that strives to follow the most stringent food safety standards," Patrick Archer, president of the group, said in a statement. "The American peanut industry's top priority is the health and safety of consumers. ... This apparent failure to follow food safety regulations must be condemned in the strongest possible terms."

At Tuesday's teleconference, FDA officials said that four strains of salmonella have now been linked to the Georgia plant in the current outbreak.

Only one strain, salmonella Typhimurium, was to blame for the contamination that has sickened more than 500 people and possibly contributed to eight deaths.

The strain was found in tubs of peanut butter in Minnesota and Connecticut and in peanut butter crackers in Canada, according to Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases in the National Center for Zoonotic Vectorborne and Enteric Diseases.

But a second strain of salmonella was found in cracks in the floor of the plant, a third in a container of peanut butter from the plant, and a fourth strain was found in peanut butter in the plant, Tauxe said. No cases of salmonella infection have resulted from the latter three strains, Tauxe added.

Peanut Corp. has been cited for failing to properly clean equipment and for failing to take steps to deal with the current salmonella contamination problem, Rogers said.

According to the AP, Peanut Corp. issued a statement Tuesday that said: "PCA has cooperated fully with the 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."

While jars of peanut butter on store shelves appear to be safe, more than 300 peanut butter and peanut paste products from more than 40 companies have been recalled so far.

The FDA officials said Tuesday that they have visited more than 1,000 companies who purchased product from Peanut Corp.

And Tauxe said he expects the list of recalled products to continue to grow.

Peanut Corp., which has recalled all peanut butter and peanut paste produced at the Georgia plant since July 1, 2008, sells directly to institutions, food service providers, food manufacturers and distributors in many states and countries. Peanut butter and peanut paste are commonly used as an ingredient in many products, including cookies, crackers, cereal, candy, ice cream, pet treats, and other foods, the CDC said.

Meanwhile, the health officials on Tuesday reported that the outbreak might be winding down, with the number of new cases declining during the past two weeks.

But because most of the tainted products went to institutions like schools, Tauxe said, more than half the victims have been children.

As of Tuesday, the FDA Web site listed these recalled products.

There is also a growing list of products determined to be safe from the recall at the American Peanut Council.

More information

For more on the outbreak, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Jan. 27, 2009, teleconference with Stephen Sundlof, D.V.M., director, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Michael Rogers, director, division of field investigations, Office of Regional Operations, FDA; and Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director, division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases, National Center for Zoonotic Vectorborne and Enteric Diseases, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Jan. 27, 2009, news release, American Peanut Council, Alexandria, Va.; Associated Press

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