WASHINGTON (AP) — Roaches, mold, and signs of a leaking roof were among numerous problems federal inspectors uncovered at a Georgia peanut plant implicated in the national salmonella outbreak, the government said Wednesday.
Food and Drug Administration inspectors noted ten separate problem areas in the report, which the agency posted on the Internet.
The report also documented that the plant's owner, Peanut Corp. of America, found salmonella in a dozen internal tests of its products during the past two years. But managers at the plant shipped the peanut butter and peanut paste anyway after getting new tests. The FDA said the company did not initially disclose the first tests to investigators trying to solve the current salmonella outbreak.
Peanut products initially found to be contaminated with salmonella were shipped as recently as last September. Health officials started picking up signals of the outbreak a month later.
Separately, senior congressional and state officials called Wednesday for a federal probe of possible criminal violations at the Blakely, Ga. peanut processing plant.
The company's actions "can only be described as reprehensible and criminal," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees FDA funding. "Not only did this company knowingly sell tainted products, it shopped for a laboratory that would provide the acceptable results they were seeking. This behavior represents the worst of our current food safety regulatory system."
In Georgia, the state's top agriculture official joined DeLauro in asking the Justice Department to determine if the case warrants criminal prosecution.
"They tried to hide it so they could sell it," said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "Now they've caused a mammoth problem that could destroy their company — and it could destroy the peanut industry."
There was no immediate response from Peanut Corp., which owns the Blakely processing plant at the center of the investigation. The company has previously said it fully cooperated with the salmonella investigation.
More than 500 people have gotten sick in the outbreak, which is continuing, and has been linked to at least eight deaths. More than 390 products containing peanut butter or peanut paste have been recalled. They range from Asian-style cooking sauces, to ice cream, to dog treats. However, major national brands of peanut butter are not affected.
The peanut industry also condemned the company, portraying it as a rogue operator.
The FDA's findings "can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer, which stands alone in an industry that strives to follow the most stringent food safety standards," Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, said in a statement.
The FDA inspection report is preliminary, and the agency said the findings do not represent a final judgment on the company's compliance with food safety laws and regulations.
But the report detailed problems which food safety experts say would be of concern.
For example, inspectors found open gaps as large as a half-inch by two-and-a-half feet at air conditioner intakes on the roof of the plant. Water stains were seen on the ceiling around the intakes and near skylights. The openings were above an area in which finished products were handled. Water leaks would be a problem because salmonella thrives in moist conditions.
Inspectors also found that plant did not take enough steps to prevent finished products from being contaminated by raw peanuts. Roasting is supposed to kill the bacteria, but raw peanuts can harbor salmonella.
Irvin, the Georgia agriculture official, said he was outraged by the company's actions and said a state criminal probe was possible. He would not, however, specify which Georgia laws the company may have violated for fear it would help the company start planning its defense.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers were drafting a plan to require foodmakers to report the results of internal inspections to state officials, something the peanut plant in Blakely wasn't required to do.
Associated Press reporter Greg Bluestein reported from Atlanta.
On the Net:
FDA's recall page: http://tinyurl.com/8srctw
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.