WASHINGTON – The salmonella outbreak spawned one of the largest ever product recalls Wednesday by a Georgia peanut plant where federal inspectors reported finding roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other sanitary problems.
Managers at the Blakely, Ga. plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America continued shipping peanut products even after they were found to contain salmonella.
Peanut Corp. expanded its recall Wednesday to all peanut products produced at the plant since Jan. 1, 2007. The company is relatively small, but its peanut paste is an ingredient in hundreds of other food products, from ice cream, to Asian-style sauces, to dog biscuits. Major national brands of peanut butter are not affected.
A senior lawmaker in Congress and Georgia's agriculture commissioner called for a criminal investigation of the company, but the Food and Drug Administration said such a step is premature while its own food safety investigation continues.
More than 500 people have gotten sick in the outbreak and at least eight may have died as a result of salmonella infection. More than 400 products have already been recalled. The plant has stopped all production.
"We feel very confident that it's one of the largest recalls we've had," said Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA's food safety center. "We're still in the process of identifying products, but it certainly is among the largest."
Most of the older products recalled Wednesday probably have been eaten already. Officials said they were seeing no signs of any earlier outbreaks that might be linked to the plant.
The latest recall covers peanut butter, peanut paste, peanut meal and granulated products, as well as all peanuts — dry and oil roasted — shipped from the factory.
Stewart Parnell, president of Peanut Corp. of America, said in a statement late Wednesday that the recall was expanded out of an abundance of caution.
"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," Parnell said, adding that officials at the Lynchburg, Va.-based company were cooperating with state and federal inquiries.
FDA inspectors reported that salmonella had been found previously at least 12 times in products made at the plant, but production lines were never cleaned up after internal tests indicated contamination. Products that initially tested positive were retested. When the company got a negative reading, it shipped the products out.
That happened as recently as September. A month later, health officials started picking up signals of the salmonella outbreak.
PCA on Wednesday said it "categorically denies any allegations that the company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products."
Michael Rogers, a senior FDA investigator, said it's possible for salmonella to hide in small pockets of a large batch of peanut butter. That means the same batch can yield both positive and negative results, he said. The products should have been discarded after they first tested positive.
A leading food safety expert agreed.
"Here's a company that knew it had salmonella in a product and still released it," said Michael Doyle, head of the food safety center at the University of Georgia. "What they tried to do is get around it by having it tested elsewhere. But that doesn't count. The first time counts. They were selling adulterated products."
Separately, senior congressional and state officials on Wednesday called for a federal probe of possible criminal violations at the plant.
The company's actions "can only be described as reprehensible and criminal," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees FDA funding. "This behavior represents the worst of our current food safety regulatory system."
In Georgia, the state's top agriculture official joined DeLauro in asking the Justice Department to determine whether the case warrants criminal prosecution.
"They tried to hide it so they could sell it," Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said. "Now they've caused a mammoth problem that could destroy their company — and it could destroy the peanut industry."
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and two other senior House Democrats introduced legislation Wednesday that would significantly increase FDA funding to carry out more inspections of food facilities and improve the agency's obsolete computer systems. The FDA targets its inspections according to the perceived risks of a given product. But that means many facilities may only be inspected once in a decade. Peanut butter, for example, is not considered a high risk food. Prior to the outbreak, the Blakely plant had not been inspected by the FDA in years.
The FDA inspection report is preliminary, and the agency said the findings do not represent a final judgment on the company's compliance with food safety laws and regulations.
The roaches were found in a wash room next to a packaging area. And a sink used for cleaning utensils also was used to wash out mops.
Of even greater concern, inspectors found open gaps as large as a half-inch by two-and-a-half feet at air conditioner intakes on the roof of the plant. Water stains were seen on the ceiling around the intakes and near skylights. The openings were above an area in which finished products were handled. Water leaks would be a problem because salmonella thrives in moist conditions.
A leaky roof is believed to have contributed to a 2007 salmonella outbreak in Peter Pan peanut butter.
ConAgra, the manufacturer, said the plant's roof leaked during a rainstorm, and the sprinkler system went off twice because of a problem, since repaired. The moisture from those three events mixed with dormant salmonella bacteria in the plant that the company said likely came from raw peanuts and peanut dust.
Inspectors at the Blakely plant also found that Peanut Corp. did not take proper steps to prevent finished products from being contaminated by raw peanuts. Roasting is supposed to kill the bacteria, but raw peanuts can harbor salmonella.
Peanut Corp. also warned consumers that salmonella potentially can be transferred to people handling pet treats exposed to salmonella, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with the products or any surfaces exposed to the products.