Salmonella Criminal Probe Heats Up as FBI Raids Peanut Corp. of America

A criminal investigation of <"">Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) took a dramatic turn yesterday when the FBI raided the company’s Blakely, Georgia plant and its Lynchburg, Virginia headquarters.   Peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste made by PCA are at the center of a massive salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 500 people across the country.  The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) probe into the outbreak became a criminal matter last month, after agency inspectors discovered that PCA knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted peanuts on a dozen occasions between 2007 and 2008.

PCA, which provides ingredients to 85 other food firms, has recalled everything made at its Georgia plant since January 2007.  Around 1500 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.

PCA even sold potentially tainted peanut butter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that was used in emergency food kits distributed in Kentucky following last month’s disastrous ice storm.  And last week, the US Department of Agriculture said that PCA had supplied peanut butter to the federal program that provides free school lunches to thousands of poor children.

As we reported last month, 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. At the time of that discovery, PCA officials told the FDA that those peanuts tested negative for the bacteria in a second round of testing.  But  the FDA reported on Friday that  PCA actually shipped some of the peanuts before the second tests were completed. Other lots were shipped without testing and, in some cases, no second test was performed even after the first one came back positive.

According to the Associated Press, the  FBI executed search warrants at the PCA Georgia plant in and at its headquarters in Virginia yesterday.  An Atlanta TV station reported FBI agents entering the plant and leaving with boxes and other material, the Associated Press said.

The FBI confirmed on Monday that it had joined the salmonella investigation, but would not comment on the raid, the Associated Press said.

The Associated Press is also reporting that on Monday, Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the  House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, scheduled a meeting for today to issue a subpoena to PCA president Stewart Parnell.  The subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on the salmonella outbreak for Wednesday, and so far Parnell has said he would not attend.

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