PCA Salmonella Outbreak Now Subject of Criminal Probe

The peanut processing plant linked to a nationwide <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/Peanut_Corp_of_America_Salmonella_Outbreak">salmonella outbreak is now the subject of a criminal probe. The investigation by the U.S. Justice Department of Peanut Corp. of America’s (PCA) Blakely, Georgia plant was initiated after Food & Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors found that the facility sold peanut products to food makers after they had tested positive for salmonella.

The salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter, peanut paste and other peanut ingredients has so far sickened 529 people in 43 states, and may have contributed to the deaths of eight people.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, illnesses were first reported in September 2008.

PCA, which provides ingredients to 85 other food firms, has recalled everything made at the Blakely plant since January 2007. Hundreds of  products made by other firms, including the Kellogg Company and General mills, have also been recalled.  The FDA has even set up a new online  database to help consumers track the recalls.  The agency said it expects the recalls to continue, and has cautioned consumers to avoid foods made with peanut butter or paste unless they are sure the ingredients did not come from PCA.

Over the weekend, the FDA warned consumers to avoid “boutique” brands of peanut butter, amid concerns that smaller companies may have been supplied by PCA.  However, the agency insists that national brands of peanut butter are safe.

As we reported earlier, FDA inspections of the Georgia plant that were prompted by the outbreak found that PCA shipped products that tested positive for salmonella contamination at least a dozen times in 2007 and 2008.  The inspection also turned up mold, roaches and a leaking roof. The company also didn’t clean its equipment there after finding contamination, and didn’t properly separate raw and finished products, the FDA said.

Last week, the Associated Press published details about an FDA report dated September 15 regarding a seized shipment of PCA peanuts.  The peanut shipment  was confiscated in April after it was rejected by Canadian officials.  The FDA informed PCA of the problem, but instead of having the tainted and peanuts  – which were described as containing a “filthy, putrid or decomposed substance, or is otherwise unfit for food” – destroyed, the company attempted to rehabilitate the product for sale.  The shipment was finally destroyed in November after back-and-forth efforts between the FDA and the company broke down and after the FDA rejected as “unacceptable” findings by a private lab hired by PCA to analyze the company’s peanuts, the Associated Press said.

Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA’s food safety center, told the Associated Press on Friday that the Justice Department will investigate possible criminal violations by the PCA. plant.  Such probes are rare, but the FDA is under a lot of pressure because of the salmonella scandal.

The FDA has also faced criticism for its failure to regulate PCA.  According to the Associated Press, prior to the outbreak, FDA inspectors had not been to the Georgia plant since 2001.

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