WASHINGTON – Federal health officials opened a criminal investigation Friday into the Georgia peanut-processing plant at the center of the national salmonella outbreak. President Barack Obama pledged stricter oversight of food safety to prevent breakdowns in inspections.
The investigation into Peanut Corp. of America follows reports of shoddy sanitation practices and inspections that found the company sold contaminated peanut products to food makers.
At least 529 people have been sickened as a result of the outbreak, and at least eight may have died because of it. More than 430 products have been recalled.
In a statement late Friday, Peanut Corp. expressed its “deepest and most sincere empathy for those sickened” and said it was reviewing the facts to determine exactly what happened.
Until recently, federal food safety inspectors had not been to the Georgia plant since 2001. The Associated Press found that FDA interest in the facility was renewed, at least temporarily, after a shipment of peanuts from the plant was seized at the Canadian border.
The shipment, taken April 11, originated at the Peanut Corp. plant and was turned back at the border. The FDA seized the product after it was found to contain metal fragments.
The seizure was the FDA’s first hint of problems with the peanut products being processed at the Georgia plant. At the FDA’s request, Georgia state inspectors visited the plant on June 10 searching for the source of metal fragments. State inspectors visited again in late October, records show. Neither inspection looked for salmonella.
A few weeks later, federal health officials saw the first signs of a salmonella outbreak. But it took more investigation to identify peanut products as the cause, and the public wasn’t alerted until early this month.
Federal officials now say the plant had a salmonella problem dating back at least to June 2007.
Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA’s food safety center, said the Justice Department will investigate possible criminal violations by the Peanut Corp. plant.
In another development Friday, officials urged consumers to be cautious about “boutique” brands of peanut butter, which had not previously figured in the recall.
Although national brands of peanut butter are unaffected, FDA officials warn that some smaller companies may have received peanut products from the Peanut Corp. processing plant in Georgia.
“I think the revelations have no doubt been alarming,” said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary.
That a company which found salmonella in its own testing would continue to ship products “is beyond disturbing for millions of parents,” he added.
Obama plans to name a new FDA commissioner and other oversight officials in the coming days, and put in place a “stricter regulatory structure” to prevent breakdowns in food safety, Gibbs said Friday.