WASHINGTON – Peanut Corp. of America sold 32 truckloads of roasted peanuts and peanut butter to the federal government for a free lunch program for poor children even as the company’s internal tests showed its products were contaminated with salmonella bacteria.
Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture abruptly suspended its contract with the company, which is at the center of an ongoing salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people, sickened 575 more and triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
The fact that a federal agency that shares responsibility for keeping food safe was among the thousands of customers who may have received tainted food from the small Blakely, Ga., plant is the latest revelation in a scandal that has exposed an array of failures in the government’s systems for keeping deadly pathogens out of the food supply.
Schools in California, Minnesota and Idaho received the suspected peanut products from January to November 2007, said Susan Acker, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department. Federal officials notified the affected schools last week and told them to destroy any uneaten food but believe most of it had already been consumed, Acker said. She said the agency is not aware of any illnesses linked to the peanut products it bought.
“This company had no conscience in its production practices, sales and distribution,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Thursday. “That they would knowingly ship products tainted with salmonella to our nation’s children almost defies belief.”
Peanut Corp. of America found salmonella in its products 12 times in 2007 and 2008, but the company sold them anyway, sometimes after getting a negative test result from a different laboratory, federal officials say. The test results were kept confidential; companies and laboratories are not required to alert health officials when pathogens are found in foods. And federal investigators say the company never cleaned its equipment or plant after learning of the salmonella.
A company spokeswoman did not return messages Thursday.
The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation.
Lawmakers, regulatory experts and consumer advocates say the peanut scare has created the best opportunity in years to reform the nation’s system of food regulation.
It has risen above other recent food scandals for a simple reason. Unlike, say spinach or jalapenos, peanut butter is a ubiquitous American food consumed in large quantities by children.
“What’s more sacred than peanut butter?” Harkin asked Thursday, waving a jar of peanut butter from his dais. “I still eat peanut butter sandwiches.”
In addition, there is a new president who is making food safety a priority and who expressed his concern this week about his 7-year-old daughter’s consumption of peanut butter; a Democratic Congress bent on strengthening regulation; and a food industry so concerned about losing consumer confidence that it, too, is calling for tougher policing.
“The food companies have become vocal about this, and that’s key,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
The peanut scare has revealed so many weak spots in the regulatory system that it is serving as a kind of road map for reform, experts said.
“I’ve been doing food safety for a long time, and I don’t think I’ve seen an outbreak or a reported set of behaviors by a company that better demonstrates the fundamental problems of food safety,” said Michael Taylor, a former top FDA official. “There are so many failures on so many levels.”
The inspection history of the Blakely plant illustrates the disjointed nature of the food safety system, Taylor and others said.
In addition to making peanut butter for private labels and institutions, the Blakely plant produced peanut paste and other peanut-containing ingredients that were sold to manufacturers for use in a wide variety of consumer products, including cakes, crackers, ice cream and dog biscuits.
The FDA, which is responsible for regulating peanut processing plants, last inspected the plant in 2001, at a time when it only roasted and blanched peanuts. The agency only learned the company was making peanut butter in 2006, when it was notified by the state of Georgia.
Understaffed, the FDA contracted with Georgia to perform annual inspections. The FDA has delegated an increasing chunk of its inspection duties to the states, with varying results.
While FDA inspectors were not visiting the Blakely plant, Agriculture Department agents were.
The USDA sent inspectors 10 times between 2001 and 2007 because the agency was buying its peanuts and peanut butter for the free lunch program, said Kent Politsch, a spokesman for the department’s Farm Service Agency.
But those inspectors were not looking at sanitary conditions or checking for salmonella or other contamination. “We are not food inspectors,” Politsch said. “We audit processes – we walk through and see whether they can produce the product.”
Last month, when the FDA traced the nationwide salmonella outbreak to the Blakely plant, FDA inspectors descended on the factory and catalogued a range of unsanitary conditions, including mold on the ceiling and walls in the cooler where finished products were stored, dead roaches and rainwater leaking from skylights into the production room. They found four strains of salmonella and noted deficiencies in the plant’s design and construction that invite contamination.