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Peanut Processor Ignored Salmonella Tests, Knowingly Sold Tainted Products

Production has halted at Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Georgia.
Production has halted at Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Georgia. (By Elliott Minor -- Associated Press)
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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Georgia peanut plant linked to a salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people and sickened 500 more across the country knowingly shipped out contaminated peanut butter 12 times in the past two years, federal officials said yesterday.

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Officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have been investigating the outbreak of salmonella illness, said yesterday that 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 yesterday 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 the Typhimurium strain of Salmonella enterica 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 food-borne, bacterial and mycotic diseases.

The outbreak, which has spread to 43 states and Canada, is ongoing, but the pace has slowed "modestly," Tauxe said. Half the people made ill have been children.

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.

Though Peanut Corporation of America, based in Lynchburg, Va., was not required to inform regulators about its internal salmonella tests, 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.

Sundlof said he could not say whether the company might face criminal charges.

Stewart Parnell, the company's owner and president, was not taking calls yesterday, and his spokesman did not return telephone messages.

The company e-mailed a statement saying it "has cooperated fully with 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."


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