WASHINGTON – A Georgia peanut plant knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products as far back as 2007, at times sending out tainted products after tests confirmed contamination, according to inspection records released Friday.
Food and Drug Administration officials earlier had said Peanut Corp. of America waited for a second test to clear peanut butter and peanuts that initially were positive for salmonella. But the agency amended its report Friday, noting that the Blakely, Ga., plant actually shipped some products before receiving the second test and sold others after confirming salmonella.
Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could make it harmful to consumers' health.
In 2007 the company shipped chopped peanuts on July 18 and 24 after salmonella was confirmed by private lab tests. Peanut Corp. sold products "on or after the positive salmonella results were obtained," the FDA report states.
In other cases, the company didn't wait for a second round of salmonella tests.
"In some instances, peanut products were shipped by (the company) prior to having assurance that the products were negative for salmonella," said Michael Rogers, head of field investigations for the FDA.
Rogers said the FDA made the discovery after a more detailed analysis of records submitted by the company.
The salmonella outbreak has been blamed for at least eight deaths and 575 illnesses in 43 states. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation. More than 1,550 products have been recalled.
A Peanut Corp. lawyer said the company is investigating what happened at the plant and had no comment on the latest FDA findings.
"We have not made a determination yet on liability," said attorney Amy Rotenberg. "We are neither denying or admitting liability at this point. We are still investigating."
Peanut Corp. previously said it "categorically denies any allegations" that it sought lab results that would put its products in a favorable light.
Problems at the plant are not new. FDA inspectors found in 2001 that products potentially were exposed to insecticides, one of several violations uncovered during the last visit federal officials made before the current food-poisoning scare, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press.
Also on Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he supports merging the nation's food-safety system into one agency. His department shares duties now with the FDA.
The USDA abruptly suspended all business with the company this week. It shipped some of the company's potentially contaminated peanut butter and peanuts to eight states, including school lunch programs in California, Minnesota and Idaho in 2007. None of the states reported illnesses as a result of people eating the products, agency officials said.
Some of the problems FDA discovered at the plant in 2001 are similar to those found last month, when federal inspectors returned to the plant after nearly eight years. The 2001 inspection found dead insects near peanuts and holes in the plant big enough for rodents to enter.
That same inspection also discovered that workers at the plant used an insecticide fogger in food- processing areas and didn't wash the exposed equipment. They also found dirty duct tape wrapped on broken equipment.
FDA inspectors did not find evidence of insecticides in peanuts at the plant during the 2001 visit. Company officials told them the fogger was last used two weeks earlier, according to the inspection report.
The USDA was one of Peanut Corp.'s two biggest clients at the time. USDA officials also regularly visited the plant, including in recent years. But those agency workers were not trained to perform food safety inspections, USDA spokesman Jerry Redding said.
The USDA visits to the plant were made by "contract auditors" who are "number crunchers," Redding said, who know nothing about peanuts. They only visited to review records, he said.
Plant owner Stewart Parnell told FDA inspectors in 2001 that USDA officials knew about the insecticide fogger and approved use of the duct tape on broken equipment, the FDA inspection report says.
The insecticide fogger discovered by inspectors noted on its labels that any exposed equipment should be thoroughly washed after use. Plant workers covered some areas, and told inspectors that no peanuts were in any equipment when the foggers were used at night.
The plant manager told inspectors that workers didn't clean the exposed areas and didn't realize the insecticide couldn't be used around food.
Parnell promised that he would correct the problems because he "wanted to assure us that he wanted his firm to be in compliance," FDA inspectors wrote.
Parnell told inspectors that the insecticide's "labeling had been changed and they had not been aware of the change," according to the FDA report.
Parnell and the plant manager said the company was assured by the insecticide supplier that the chemical was safe for use in food areas.
FDA officials said Friday the company was allowed in 2001 to fix the problems on its own because the inspection showed no evidence that finished products were being contaminated.