By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
A second peanut-processing plant owned by the company at the heart of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella-related illness has been shut down after Texas authorities discovered the bacteria in products there.
Late yesterday, Congress issued a subpoena to compel Stewart Parnell, president of Peanut Corporation of America, to appear this morning at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Parnell, 54, of Lynchburg, Va., has stayed out of public view since investigators first traced the contamination to his family-owned company in early January.
Peanut Corporation owns three peanut-processing plants, in Georgia, Texas and Virginia.
The federal investigation into the salmonella outbreak, which has killed eight people and sickened 600 others in 44 states, has centered on the company's Blakely, Ga., plant, which was shut down last month.
Monday night, the company also shuttered its Plainview, Tex., plant at the request of state health officials after laboratory results showed salmonella in samples of roasted peanuts, peanut meal and granulated peanuts taken last week, said Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Additional analysis is needed to confirm the contamination and determine if the bacteria are the same type of salmonella linked to the outbreak, McBride said.
The bacteria were discovered before the affected granulated peanuts and meal left the Texas plant, but the roasted nuts had already been shipped out of state, McBride said. Company officials notified the distributor Monday night and recalled the roasted peanuts, he said.
Texas officials believe none of the contaminated products reached consumers, McBride said.
A spokeswoman for Peanut Corporation of America did not respond to requests for comment.
Michael Rogers, director of field investigations at the Food and Drug Administration, said federal officials are in the middle of a "comprehensive" investigation of the Texas plant and were not prepared yesterday to discuss their findings so far or to comment on the discoveries made by state officials.
The Texas plant, which employs 30, had been operating since 2005, unknown to government regulators. It was not registered with the state and had never been inspected by health officials, McBride said. State and federal officials learned about the plant only after the FDA began questioning company officials in connection with the outbreak.
Texas inspectors went to the Plainview plant on Feb. 4 and took samples, McBride said. The company kept half the samples and sent them to a private laboratory for analysis, while state officials sent the others to the state laboratory, he said. The state officials found minor problems at the plant, such as openings in screens, and no reason to immediately suspend operations.
"Unless there's an immediate threat to the public's health, our regulatory approach is to work with a company to get it into compliance, not to shut someone down and eliminate income and jobs," McBride said.
On Monday, however, the company informed the state that its internal test results were "presumptive for salmonella," McBride said. That was enough to shut the plant down, he said, adding that the state expects results from its own tests soon.
Federal investigators say Peanut Corporation's Georgia plant knowingly shipped products contaminated with salmonella on 12 occasions in 2007 and 2008. The company makes peanut butter for institutions such as nursing homes and schools, and processes peanut ingredients used by other food companies in products ranging from energy bars to candy to dog biscuits.
In one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, the company has recalled all products made with peanuts processed at its Georgia plant since 2007. Among the thousands of customers affected is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which purchased peanuts and peanut butter from the company in 2007 and served them to thousands of low-income children through the government's free lunch program.
The list of recalled products, which is updated regularly, can be found at http://www.fda.gov.
The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation of the company, and several civil lawsuits filed by victims of the outbreak are pending.
Meanwhile, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America sent a letter to the company yesterday saying it was terminating its kosher certification for all three plants.