By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009
In one of the largest food recalls in history, the Food and Drug Administration asked retailers, manufacturers and consumers yesterday to throw out every product made in the past two years from peanuts processed by a Georgia plant at the heart of a deadly nationwide outbreak of salmonella illness.
The action came after federal officials discovered this month that the company, Peanut Corporation of America, knowingly shipped products contaminated with salmonella 12 times in 2007 and 2008, prompting a congresswoman to call yesterday for a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.
Michael Rogers of the FDA said the company violated good manufacturing practices by selling peanut products that had tested positive for salmonella bacteria in inspections commissioned by the firm. He said it turned over records of its inspections only after the FDA invoked special authority given to it by Congress in 2002 under laws to prevent bioterrorism.
But Rogers would not say whether the company would face sanctions. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on whether the agency is evaluating the matter.
A spokesman for Peanut Corporation of America, based in Lynchburg, Va., has said that the company complied with all requests by regulators from "Day One" of their investigation.
"We have been devastated by this, and we have been working around the clock with the FDA to ensure any potentially unsafe products are removed from the market immediately," the company's president, Stewart Parnell, said last night in a written statement. The company also said that its goal "over the past 33 years has always been to follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's good manufacturing practices in order to provide a safe product for consumers."
The company's plant in Blakely, Ga., produces peanut butter, paste, meal and granules that are used in products including ice cream, snack crackers and dog biscuits. Since early this month, when federal investigators traced the salmonella contamination to the plant, more than 400 products made with peanut butter or paste from the facility were recalled. That represented products made with peanut ingredients handled by the plant since July 1.
But yesterday's move expands the recall to all peanut products that came out of the Blakely plant since Jan. 1, 2007. Federal officials said they do not know how many consumer products will be affected.
"We don't have a good idea right now in terms of how much of that product is still out there; it may have largely been consumed," said Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Federal officials found four different strains of Salmonella enterica at the plant, raising questions about whether products besides peanut butter and paste may have been contaminated.
The outbreak of salmonella illness, which began in late summer and is ongoing, has been linked to eight deaths, including two in Virginia. In all, about 500 people in 43 states and Canada have become ill. About 22 percent were hospitalized, and about half of those affected are children.
Health officials said they will work with companies supplied by Peanut Corporation of America to continually update a recall list that is available on the FDA's Web site. The Web site details a long list of popular products that are affected, including candies, cookies, snack bars and snack mixes.
Peanut Corporation of America, which also has plants in Virginia and Texas, is a relatively small company, but the contamination's impact is large because the peanuts the plant processes are turned into hundreds, if not thousands, of food products.
Once federal investigators traced the current outbreak to the Blakely plant, they made 14 visits earlier this month and documented unsanitary conditions, poor practices and structural problems that invited bacterial contamination.
The inspection reports, made public yesterday by the FDA, detail mold growing on a ceiling, rainwater leaking into the production area from skylights, gaps in the building where rodents could enter, dead roaches and inadequate ventilation, among other defects.
Raw peanuts, which can carry bacteria, were stored in proximity to roasted peanuts, increasing the chances for contamination, the report said. Peanut products ready for packaging were stored 15 feet from a spot where a swab tested positive for one of four salmonella strains that the FDA said existed in the plant. A single sink was used by workers to wash their hands as well as utensils and mops, making it possible to pass contaminants among all three.
The last time the FDA inspected the plant was in 2001, officials said yesterday. In 2006, the agency contracted inspections to the Georgia Department of Agriculture. State inspectors visited the plant about twice a year, but in 2008 they did not check for salmonella. The state inspection reports all seemed to play down deficiencies, saying all that was needed was routine follow-up.
The outbreak of salmonella illness has spurred two civil lawsuits against the company. Yesterday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture and the FDA, said she will ask the Justice Department to investigate possible criminal charges against plant officials. She also wants the FDA's inspector general to review the agency's inspection contracts with the state of Georgia and others.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced a bill yesterday that would increase resources and regulatory authority for the FDA. "The Food and Drug Administration can't and doesn't do its job, and American lives are at risk," Dingell said. "We're killing Americans."
Sundlof of the FDA defended his agency. "It's the responsibility of the industry to produce safe products. The FDA is not in the plants on a continuous basis. We do rely on inspections to find problems when they exist. It's just as if it were an individual citizen: We expect individual citizens to obey the law. Occasionally, they don't obey the law, and when they don't, it's the responsibility of the regulatory agency to take the appropriate action, which is what we're doing."