Officials from the Food and Drug Administration discovered that the Peanut Corporation of America found salmonella bacteria while conducting internal tests several times in 2007 and 2008 but knowingly sold its products anyway. The contaminated peanut butter products were shipped 12 times in those two years, according to company documents examined by the FDA.
According to records kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 500 people in 43 states and Canada have become sick after eating products containing the Peanut Corporation of America’s contaminated peanut butter. The FDA blames the salmonella outbreak on eight deaths so far.
Approximately 400 products from several manufacturers have been pulled from store shelves as part of the massive peanut butter recall. Most of the contaminated peanut butter and peanut butter paste made by PCA is used as an ingredient in other products such as cookies, crackers, candy, and ice cream. It is also distributed to a number of institutions and cafeterias.
Federal investigators tested the PCA facility in Blakely, Georgia, where the contamination occurred. They found four different strains of salmonella. However, only one strain — Salmonella Typhimurium — has been found in the company’s food samples.
Because the federal government does not require companies to disclose the results of tests conducted internally, heath regulators were not aware of the contamination. Still, the company likely broke federal law, according to Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
“Foods are supposed to be produced under conditions that do not render them damaging to health,” he told The Washington Post. Whether the criminal charges could be pressed against the company is not yet clear.
No one knows at this time exactly how the salmonella bacteria migrated from its source to the food, but investigations are still underway. The Blakely plant has suspended operations until more is known about the contamination.
According to health regulators from the state of Georgia, inspection reports indicate the Blakely plant has a long history of unsanitary conditions. Despite any violations, however, no records indicate the company was ever subject to state or federal fines.
The FDA has never inspected the plant itself but relied on the Georgia Department of Agriculture for routine inspections. The FDA claims that it simply does not have enough inspectors to send to all of the nation’s food production plants. Likewise, Oscar Garrison, Georgia’s assistant agriculture commissioner for consumer protection, said that the state doesn’t have enough resources to test all of the state’s food-processing plants and food stores.
Nevertheless, Georgia officials were inspecting the plant last October when the contaminated products were being made. Unfortunately, neither the factory nor the food were tested for salmonella.
Michael Rogers, director of field investigations for the FDA, told The Washington Post that “all inspections are a snapshot in time; they only reveal what is happening at the firm at that particular time.” Assuming the statement is accurate, why didn’t Georgia inspectors leave the PCA plant last October with a snapshot of salmonella contamination?
“The average plant is inspected once every 10 years. This one was getting inspected a couple of times a year by Georgia, but neither they nor the FDA were taking enough enforcement action,” Jean Halloran, the director of food safety for Consumers Union, told The Washington Post.