Federal officials have been reporting that that the Peanut Corporation of America had salmonella-contaminated peanut butter retested in an apparent effort to obtain negative results. however, this week the Food and Drug Administration corrected its report, saying that in some cases the peanut processing plant in Blakely, Georgia, didn’t wait for results of the second tests before sending shipments of peanut butter. In other cases, independent labs hired by the Peanut Corp. found salmonella in some peanut butter, but the company shipped it out anyway, without retesting.
These latest findings indicate that the Peanut Corporation was either grossly negligent or, more likely, that some of its decision makers were engaging in criminal business practices. Federal law prohibits producing and shipping food under conditions that could jeopardize the public’s health and safety, and it appears that the Peanut Corp. did both.
Michael Rogers, head of field investigations for the FDA, said that the agency uncovered the dubious activity during a closer review of documents provided by the Peanut Corp.
“We have not made a determination yet on liability,” attorney Amy Rotenberg, an attorney for the Peanut Corp., told the Associated Press. “We are neither denying or admitting liability at this point. We are still investigating.”
On January 28, the Peanut Corp. issued a statement on its website denying accusations that it shopped around for more favorable test results. “PCA uses only two highly reputable labs for product testing and they are widely used by the industry and employ good laboratory practices. PCA categorically denies any allegations that the Company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products.”
The FDA and USDA also knew that the Peanut Corp. was operating a dirty plant, yet its representatives failed to take action. In the past, inspectors found dead insects near peanuts, holes in the plant large enough to admit mice and rats, and dirty duct tape holding broken equipment together. They also discovered that the company used insecticide foggers in the plant but didn’t wash the exposed areas and equipment. The FDA gave Peanut Corp. the liberty to fix the problems on its own because the food products it tested at the time showed no signs of chemical or organic contamination.
As it happens all too commonly in government, a crisis is usually needed before substantial improvements are made. In this instance, 8 people died from salmonella poisoning linked to the Peanut Corp.’s contaminated peanut butter. Another 575 people were sickened.
Some members of Congress are calling for both criminal investigations by the Justice Department and an overhaul of the FDA and USDA. The USDA was one of Peanut Corp.’s two biggest buyers before it suspended all business with the company.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said that food producers need to be held responsible for deadly outbreaks of disease such as this latest salmonella outbreak with jail time, not fines alone. Traditionally, the federal government has not been aggressive in penalizing companies that knowingly violate food safety laws.
Since news of the massive peanut butter recall surfaced, many customers have shunned peanut butter altogether, including brands that have been deemed safe. Sales of all peanut butter brands are down 25 percent, according to a report by the New York Times. Some industry officials worry that Peanut Corp’s recklessness could be catastrophic to the peanut industry.