WASHINGTON – Federal health officials opened a criminal investigation Friday into the Georgia peanut-processing plant at the center of the national salmonella outbreak. President Obama pledged stricter oversight of food safety to prevent breakdowns in inspections.
The investigation into Peanut Corp. of America follows reports of shoddy sanitation practices and inspections that found the company sold contaminated peanut products to food makers.
At least 529 people have been sickened as a result of the outbreak, and at least eight may have died because of it. More than 430 products have been recalled.
In a statement late Friday, Peanut Corp. expressed its "deepest and most sincere empathy for those sickened" and said it was reviewing the facts to determine exactly what happened.
"Our top priority has been — and will continue to be — to ensure the public safety," it said. "For Peanut Corporation to engage in any discussion of the facts at this point is premature."
Until recently, federal food safety inspectors had not been to the Georgia plant since 2001. The Associated Press found that FDA interest in the facility was renewed, at least temporarily, after a shipment of peanuts from the plant was seized at the Canadian border.
The shipment, taken April 11, originated at the Peanut Corp. plant and was turned back at the border. The FDA seized the product after it was found to contain metal fragments.
The seizure was the FDA's first hint of problems with the peanut products being processed at the Georgia plant. At the FDA's request, Georgia state inspectors visited the plant on June 10 searching for the source of metal fragments. State inspectors visited again in late October, records show. Neither inspection looked for salmonella.
A few weeks later, federal health officials saw the first signs of a salmonella outbreak. But it took more investigation to identify peanut products as the cause, and the public wasn't alerted until early this month.
The June inspection focused only on the metal-fragment issue discovered in the shipment to Canada, said Domenic Veneziano, director of import operations and policy for the FDA's Office of Regulatory Affairs.
"Working with the state of Georgia, at no time did we look at other issues" during that inspection, Veneziano said. According to state inspection records, relatively minor violations were found.
Inspectors took no samples of the peanut product for testing during the June inspection or during an Oct. 23 state inspection.
The FDA reported this week that federal inspectors who visited the plant since the salmonella outbreak found roaches, mold, signs of a leaking roof and numerous other sanitation problems.
Federal officials now say the plant had a salmonella problem dating back at least to June 2007. Peanut Corp. was under no obligation to tell the FDA it was making peanut butter at the Georgia plant, the FDA said Friday.
Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA's food safety center, said the Justice Department will investigate possible criminal violations by the Peanut Corp. plant.
The company shipped products that initially tested positive for salmonella after retesting and getting a negative result. The FDA's investigations branch will assist in the probe.
In another development Friday, officials urged consumers to be cautious about "boutique" brands of peanut butter, which had not previously figured in the recall.
Although national brands of peanut butter are unaffected, FDA officials warn that some smaller companies may have received peanut products from the Peanut Corp. processing plant in Georgia.
"I think the revelations have no doubt been alarming," said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary. That a company which found salmonella in its own testing would continue to ship products "is beyond disturbing for millions of parents," he added.
Obama plans to name a new FDA commissioner and other oversight officials in the coming days, and put in place a "stricter regulatory structure" to prevent breakdowns in food safety, Gibbs said Friday.
The peanut shipment confiscated in April was destroyed in November after back-and-forth efforts between the FDA and Peanut Corp. broke down and after the FDA rejected as "unacceptable" findings by a private lab hired by Peanut Corp. to analyze the company's peanuts.
"The shipment was refused by FDA for filth" and destroyed, FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek wrote AP in an e-mail. "The FDA did everything appropriately in handling the activities associated with this shipment," Kwisnek said.
The FDA's explanation Friday raises new questions about the adequacy of food-safety tests arranged by Peanut Corp. of its own products.
The FDA said it refused to accept the private lab analysis because of problems with the size of the sample tested, lack of information about whether experienced and trained workers conducted the test, and questions about whether the test could have detected certain types of metals.
"The new developments are disturbing and suggest that this company had extensive problems," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., whose House Energy and Commerce Committee plans hearings into the company's actions and the government's response. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also plans oversight hearings.
The FDA, citing internal company documents, said Peanut Corp. had hired a lab that conducted at least 12 positive tests for salmonella between 2007 and 2008 at its Georgia processing plant. The FDA said the company then used a different lab to retest the products, and those tests came back negative and the product was shipped to customers.