Peanut Corp. Salmonella Contamination Dates to 2006

Salmonella contamination was found at <"">Peanut Corp. of America’s (PCA) Georgia plant as early as 2006, a witness told a Congressional committee yesterday.  The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) had previously said that salmonella first turned up at the plant in June 2007.

Speaking before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Investigations, Darlene Cowart of JLA USA testing service said the company contacted her in November 2006 to help control salmonella discovered in the plant.   According to Cowart, she made a single visit to the PCA facility in Blakely, Georgia.  She said she found that problems with  peanut roasting and storage of peanuts could have led to the salmonella, but PCA officials said they believed the salmonella came from organic Chinese peanuts.  Cowart also said that she thought PCA may have stopped using her company because of the number of times it found salmonella at the factory.

Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories Inc., said his company also found salmonella in PCA products.  FDA records show that PCA sold those products despite Deibel’s warnings.

“What is virtually unheard of is for an entity to disregard those results and place potentially contaminated products into the stream of commerce,” Deibel said.

FDA officials appearing at the hearing said  more federal inspections of PCA could have prevented this year’s massive salmonella outbreak that has killed 9 and sickened 600.  But the FDA hadn’t been to the Georgia plant since 2001, and relied on state inspectors to spot problems.

Since the outbreak began, PCA, which provides ingredients to 85 other food firms, has recalled everything made at its Blakely, Georgia plant since January 2007.  More than 1800 products made by other firms, including the Kellogg Company and General Mills, have also been recalled. The recalls are so widespread that the FDA has even set up an online  database to help consumers track them.  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.

As we reported last month, recent FDA  inspections of the Georgia plant found that PCA shipped peanuts that tested positive for salmonella contamination at least a dozen times in 2007 and 2008. The inspection also turned up roaches, mold and a leaky roof.

Families of some salmonella victims also appeared at the hearing.  At one point, they were asked what they would like to see done in response to the catastrophe.

“Their behavior is criminal, in my opinion. I want to see jail time,”  said Jeffrey Almer, whose mother, Shirley Mae Almer, died Dec. 21, from salmonella caused by PCA peanut butter.  Almer  also asked why food recalls are only voluntary, and left up to the company.

Last month, the Justice Department joined the FDA in a  criminal probe of PCA.  Earlier this week, the  FBI executed search warrants at the PCA Georgia plant and at its headquarters in Virginia.

PCA owner Stewart Parnell had been subpoenaed at yesterday’s hearing, and although he appeared, he invoked his constitutional right not to incriminate himself.

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