Plant knew of contamination, feds say
Salmonella found in peanut butter repeatedly but firm shipped it anyway
WASHINGTON – The Georgia peanut plant linked to a salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people and sickened another 500 across the country knowingly shipped out contaminated peanut butter 12 times in the past two years, federal officials said Tuesday.
Officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have been investigating the salmonella outbreak, said Tuesday that the Peanut Corporation of America found salmonella in internal tests a dozen times in 2007 and 2008 but sold the products anyway, sometimes after getting a negative finding from a different laboratory.
Companies are not required to disclose their internal tests to either the FDA or state regulators, so health officials did not know of the problem.
The peanut butter and paste made at the company’s Blakely, Ga., plant are not sold directly to stores but are used by manufacturers to make crackers, cookies, energy bars, cereal, ice cream, candies and even dog biscuits. Some of the country’s biggest foodmakers, including Kellogg and McKee Foods, which produces Little Debbie brand snacks, have recalled more than 100 products made with the tainted ingredients, and the list keeps growing.
Federal investigators also said Tuesday that they had found four strains of salmonella at the Georgia plant, including one in a sample taken from the floor near a washroom. Only one strain – salmonella Typhimurium – has been linked to the outbreak.
“There is a salmonella problem at the plant,” said Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases.
The outbreak, which has spread to 43 states and Canada, is ongoing, but the pace has slowed “modestly,” Tauxe said.
Major-label peanut butter is not suspected to be contaminated with salmonella and is considered safe to eat, according to the FDA. The makers of several major brands, including Peter Pan, Jif and Smuckers, are worried that panicky consumers will stop buying their products, and they have been taking pains to point out that their peanut butters are not part of the outbreak.
Peanut Corporation of America, based in Lynchburg, Va., was not required under federal or state law to inform regulators about its internal salmonella tests. But Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said it appears that the company violated federal law. “Foods are supposed to be produced under conditions that do not render them damaging to health,” he said.
Stewart Parnell, the company’s owner and president, was not taking calls Tuesday, and his spokesman did not return telephone messages. The company halted production at the Blakely plant once the FDA confirmed it was the source of the outbreak.
FDA officials said they still do not know the how the plant was contaminated and how the bacteria got into the peanut products, although state inspection records show a pattern of unsanitary conditions over several years.