By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009
The federal government has begun a criminal investigation of the peanut company responsible for an outbreak of salmonella illness that has sickened hundreds of people, killed at least eight and prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
The Food and Drug Administration is working with the Justice Department to explore possible criminal charges against the Peanut Corporation of America of Lynchburg, Va., which shipped contaminated products made in its plant in Blakely, Ga., officials said yesterday.
"There is a criminal investigation that has been initiated through our office of criminal investigation at the FDA. They have to work through the Department of Justice to develop a case and prosecute, if that's what it comes to," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "It's an open investigation."
Neither Sundlof nor the Justice Department would comment further. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Outside experts said the investigation could result in misdemeanor or felony charges against the company. At least 529 people in 43 states have been sickened in the outbreak, and more than 500 products have been recalled.
"Under the food safety law, if you ship an adulterated food in interstate commerce, that violates one of the so-called prohibited acts and can be prosecuted criminally," said Michael R. Taylor of George Washington University, a former FDA food safety official. "Food can be considered adulterated if it is produced under unsanitary conditions."
Taylor said the penalties available under current law are limited to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail for each misdemeanor and a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for a felony. It was unclear yesterday whether prosecutors could potentially file separate counts based on each contaminated lot. The case illustrates the need for greater penalties, Taylor said.
"The penalties are relatively light," he said. "If the facts are true as have been reported, you have a company that was knowingly and recklessly shipping products from a facility known to be contaminated with salmonella, sending over 100 people to the hospital and killing as many as eight," he said. "The question is whether the criminal remedies in the Food and Drug Act are sufficient, given the severity of the harm."
The case has renewed calls to overhaul the nation's food safety system, including possibly creating a separate agency focused on food safety.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that President Obama plans "in coming days" to name a new FDA commissioner and other officials responsible for consumer protection who will establish a "stricter regulatory structure to ensure that the type of thing that happened in this case doesn't happen again."
"I think the revelations have no doubt been alarming," Gibbs said, and "beyond disturbing for millions of parents."
On Thursday, the FDA significantly expanded the product recall, asking stores, manufacturers and consumers to throw out every item made in the past two years from peanuts processed by the Peanut Corporation of America's Georgia plant.
The move came after federal officials discovered that the company had knowingly shipped products contaminated with salmonella 12 times in 2007 and 2008.
The plant produces a variety of peanut products, including paste, meal and whole peanuts, which are used to make a host of goods including ice cream, snack crackers and dog biscuits.
While nationally distributed brands of peanut butter are not affected by the recall, Sundlof said yesterday that officials cannot be certain about "boutique" brands of peanut butter made by individual stores.
"We know some stores will purchase peanuts and grind them themselves," he said. "We certainly recognize the possibility that those nuts may be purchased and ground by certain stores and boutiques into their own brands."
The FDA also acknowledged yesterday that a shipment of Peanut Corporation of America products contaminated with metal fragments was stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border in April. That was when the agency learned that peanut products were being produced at the plant.
The inquiry was welcomed by Congress members who had requested one.
"I intend to follow the investigation closely to ensure that, if the allegations of criminal behavior prove to be true, the guilty parties receive appropriate punishment," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).