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.
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."
The company halted production at the Blakely plant once the FDA confirmed it was the source of the outbreak. FDA officials said the company is free to restart production but will have to first address a list of manufacturing deficiencies, which federal officials intend to make public today.
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. In each case, inspectors flagged the problems but said they required routine follow-up. There is no evidence that Peanut Corporation of America was ever closed by the state or otherwise penalized.
The FDA has never inspected the plant, instead delegating that duty under a contract to the Georgia Department of Agriculture. The federal agency has said it does not have enough inspectors to visit the country's 65,520 domestic food production facilities. In fiscal 2008, it inspected 5,930 plants.
State inspectors last visited the Georgia plant in October, while the contaminated products were being produced, according to inspection records first obtained by the Associated Press. But they did not test either the factory or the peanut products for salmonella. "We do pull product samples from time to time, but we can only run 4,500 samples in a year, and we have 16,000 food-processing and food-sales stores in the state," said Oscar Garrison, Georgia's assistant agriculture commissioner for consumer protection.
Michael Rogers, director of field investigations at the FDA, said that his agency is reviewing the state's inspection process and that it is unclear if Georgia officials would have found the salmonella if they had tested. "All inspections are a snapshot in time; they only reveal what is happening at the firm at that particular time," Rogers said.
But Jean Halloran, director of food safety for Consumers Union, said if the government was adequately protecting the food supply, the outbreak could have been minimized or even prevented, and lives could have been saved. Major reforms in inspections and regulations are past due, she said.
"The average plant is inspected once every 10 years," Halloran said. "This one was getting inspected a couple of times a year by Georgia, but neither they nor the FDA were taking enough enforcement action."
Salmonella is carried by animal feces. Foods can also become contaminated by infected handlers who do not wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom. The bacteria generally thrive in a wet environment, such as meat and eggs. But after a 2007 outbreak at a ConAgra facility in Georgia that makes Peter Pan peanut butter, food safety experts realized that salmonella can exist in a dormant state in peanut butter and then reproduce when ingested by humans.
Salmonella bacteria can cause an infection that often produces diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps within 12 to 72 hours. The illness usually lasts four to seven days. While most people recover without treatment, infants, elderly people and those with compromised immune systems can develop severe illness that can be fatal if not promptly treated with antibiotics.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.