Peanut Corporation of America found salmonella in internal tests at its Blakely, Ga. plant a dozen times in the 2007 and 2008, and knowingly shipped out product anyway, according to federal health officials during a telephone press conference. It even went one step further by hiring external labs for a negative finding (or lab-shopped).
Although Lynchburg, Va.-based Peanut Corporation of America was not required by law 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 and to use good manufacturing practices," he said. Sundlof said he could not say whether the company might face criminal charges.
Federal investigators found four strains of salmonella at the Georgia plant in January, including one in a sample taken from the floor near a washroom. Only the Typhimurium strain of Salmonella enterica has been linked to the contaminated peanut butter and peanut paste salmonella outbreak which has killed eight people and sickened one person in Canada and 501 in the U.S. – 50 percent of them children and 21 percent less than 5-years-old.
FDA officials said they still do not know the how the plant was contaminated and how the bacteria got into the peanut products. The FDA delegated inspection of the plant to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, and records show a pattern of unsanitary conditions. State inspectors last visited the Georgia plant in October, while the contaminated products were being produced, according to inspection records obtained by the Associated Press, reports the Washington Post. But they did not test either the factory or the peanut products for salmonella. 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.
The peanut butter and paste made at the company's plant was not sold at retail, but in industrial-sized cans of peanut butter used by schools and other institutions, and used by 70 food processing manufacturers to make crackers, cookies, energy bars, cereal, ice cream, candies and even dog biscuits. More than 180 products made with the tainted ingredients have been recalled to date.
It is one thing for a company to have an isolated incident or accident. I believe people are innocent until proven guilty, but if the evidence is true, this was criminal behavior and those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.