Peanut Butter Maker Found Salmonella In Its Own Tests, Shipped The Products Anyway

January 28, 2009

Peanut Corporation of America, blamed in a major salmonella outbreak, found salmonella in a dozen tests of its own peanut butter and paste over the past two years, but shipped out the products anyway, government inspectors say.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released some of the findings Tuesday from an investigation it conducted along with the Centers for Disease Control after determining earlier this month that PCA’s Blakely, Ga., factory was the source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 501 people so far and killed eight.

Six of the illnesses have occurred in Texas, one each in Harris and Galveston counties.

However, more than 400 products containing PCA peanut butter or peanut paste – many commonly sold in local grocery stores – have now been recalled as a result of the FDA inspection.

In a conference call on Tuesday, FDA Field Investigations Director Michael Rogers said an inspection team at the Blakely plant “identified approximately 12 instances in 2007 and 2008 where the firm as part of their own internal testing program identified some type of salmonella and released a product after it was retested, in some cases by a different laboratory.”

“The inspection also identified a number of deficiencies related to the firm’s cleaning programs and procedures for their manufacturing equipment as well as failure to take steps to mitigate salmonella contamination or crop contamination in the facility,” Rogers said.

FDA and CDC officials also said they have visited nearly 1,000 companies that bought products from PCA “to facilitate the recall.”

A week ago 125 products were on the FDA’s peanut butter recall list, but by Wednesday that list had grown to 402 products.

“As FDA gathers additional information about these products, we expect the list of recalled products to continue to expand,” said Dr. Stephen Sundlof of the FDA.

Government officials have pointed to a correlation between people who have become sick with salmonella and the eating of peanut butter snack crackers. The Keebler and Austin brands have specifically been identified by the FDA. Both products are among the many that have been recalled.

The Houston Independent School District pulled peanut butter products from vending machines weeks ago, and warned parents about sending children to school with peanut butter products.

The FDA is maintaining a searchable web page of products that have been recalled because they might contain contaminated products from the PCA plant.

The voluminous list now includes brownie, cake, candy, cookie and cracker products; fruit and vegetable products combined with peanut butter; ice cream products, pre-packaged meals; pet food products; snack bars and snack mix products.

Ironically, most national brands of peanut butter are believed safe for consumption, government officials say.

The exceptions are Grande Gourmet, King Nut and Parnell’s Pride peanut butter – all off which are sold to institutional customers.

Sundlof noted that people won’t find the Peanut Corporation of America name on product packaging, because PCA distributes to 70 or more food processors that either process it into their own products, or put their own names on packaging and redistribute the PCA goods.

“Now, if consumers are in doubt about the safety of their products, they should not eat them until the scope of the recall is clear,” Sundlof said.

Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC said during the Tuesday conference call that while the illnesses and deaths have been attributed to Salmonella Tyhpimurium, “a second type of almonella has been found in unopened containers of the King Nut Peanut Butter, the brand that comes from PCA.”

Tauxe also said inspectors have identified two more strains of salmonella in specimens collected from cracks in flooring at the Blakely plant.

FDA officials acknowledged their inspectors never had entered the Blakely plant until this month, after the salmonella outbreak.

Instead, George Department of Agriculture inspectors were under contract with the FDA to monitor the plant. The Washington Post reported that state inspectors found uncovered a “pattern of unsanitary conditions over several years,” but apparently never penalized the company or closed the plant.

The PCA Blakely plant has been shut down, however, since the FDA identified it as the source of the current outbreak.