***FILE***This Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009 file photo, shows the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Ga. Peanut Corp. of America president Stewart Parnell said through an external public relations firm that a majority of the plant's employees had been let go for the time being since production has been shut down. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor)
WASHINGTON -- Weeks before the earliest signs of a national salmonella outbreak that now has been traced to peanuts from a Georgia processing plant, peanuts exported by the same company were found to be contaminated and were returned to the United States, The Associated Press has learned.
The rejected shipment - coming over the U.S. border across a bridge between New York and Canada - was logged by the Food and Drug Administration but never was tested by federal inspectors, according to the government's own records.
The chopped peanuts from Peanut Corp. of America in Blakely, Ga., were prevented by the FDA from being allowed back into the United States in mid-September because the peanuts contained an unspecified "filthy, putrid or decomposed substance, or is otherwise unfit for food," according to an FDA report of the incident.
It was not immediately clear whether the date on the government's record, Sept. 15, was when the unspecified importer rejected the shipment or when the FDA refused it. It also was not known whether the peanut shipment ultimately was destroyed or sent somewhere else.
The FDA said it could not provide details about the incident. Peanut Corp. of America didn't immediately respond to AP's request for comment. Federal inspectors previously reported they found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other sanitation issues at the company's processing plant in Blakely believed to be the source of the outbreak.
Members of Congress noted that the timing of the discovery of the adulterated peanuts came just weeks before the first clear signs of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 500 people in the United States and may have killed at least eight. The FDA has since ordered recalls of a long list of products containing nuts from Peanut Corp.
"The FDA failing to follow up after this incident, does that mean that products that are not good enough for a foreign country are still good enough for the USA?" asked Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "That's a double standard that has deadly consequences for our citizens." Harkin plans hearings on the outbreak and has proposed an overhaul of the nation's food inspection network.
The head of the House appropriations panel that oversees FDA funding, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, called the discovery of the bad shipment in September "a perfect example of the patchwork system."
"Why was it able to get exported in the first place?" said DeLauro, D-Conn. "That also begs the question, how many contaminated products are getting through our borders every single day? If the FDA discovered that there was an issue with this product inspection, why didn't they follow up on it? Why didn't they take a closer look at this facility?"
DeLauro said she wants the Justice Department to investigate the salmonella outbreak, and also is pressing for major changes in food safety oversight.
The government recorded the peanuts' seizure in the FDA's Oasis system, designed to prevent shipments into the United States of unsafe foreign products. In this case, it caught peanuts coming back into the U.S. after they were rejected abroad. According to the government's database, the FDA did not analyze a sample of the adulterated peanuts. The records show conflicting information about whether the FDA has a record of an analysis of the peanuts from a private lab.
The seizure of the peanuts in September is significant because it came just before the salmonella outbreak, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
"It strikes me that if FDA was paying attention to this information, that they might have gone and done an inspection of the plant in September instead of waiting until after the products were associated with a major outbreak," she said. DeWaal said she thinks "the question for the agency is how did they use it when it happened."
The incident was among nearly 1,400 around the country in September in which the FDA refused to allow shipments into or back into the United States, often because products are not approved for sale in the U.S. or were improperly labeled. In a few cases in September, the FDA actually detected salmonella on items coming into the U.S.
The rejected peanut shipment was stopped at a border crossing, apparently in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., suggesting the chopped peanuts had been sent originally to Canada. Canadian government officials told the AP they could not confirm the shipment.
Canada this week recalled several products as a result of the outbreak. The country is working with the FDA to trace back possible distribution of the products, said Garfield Balsom, spokesman for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency Office of Food Safety and Recall.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.