- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Federal health officials opened a criminal investigation Friday into the Georgia peanut-processing plant at the center of the national salmonella outbreak.

The investigation into Peanut Corp. of America follows reports of shoddy sanitation practices and inspections that found the company sold contaminated peanut products to food makers.

At least 529 people have been sickened as a result of the outbreak, and at least eight may have died because of it. More than 430 products have been recalled.

Until recently, federal food safety inspectors had not been to the Georgia plant since 2001. The Associated Press found that FDA interest in the facility was renewed, at least temporarily, after a shipment of peanuts from the plant was seized at the Canadian border.

The shipment, taken April 11, originated at the Peanut Corp. plant and was turned back at the border after the FDA found it to contain metal fragments.

The seizure was the FDA’s first hint that peanut products were being processed at the Georgia plant. At the FDA’s request, Georgia state inspectors visited the plant June 10 searching for the source of metal fragments. State inspectors visited again in late October, records show.

Neither inspection looked for salmonella. According to state inspection records, relatively minor violations were found. Inspectors took no samples of the peanut product for testing during the June inspection or during an Oct. 23 state inspection.

The FDA reported this week that federal inspectors who visited the plant since the salmonella outbreak found roaches, mold, signs of a leaking roof and numerous other sanitation problems.

Federal officials now say the plant had a salmonella problem dating at least to June 2007. Peanut Corp. was under no obligation to tell the FDA it was making peanut butter at the Georgia plant, the FDA said Friday.

Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA’s food safety center, said the Justice Department will investigate possible criminal violations by the Peanut Corp. plant.

In another development Friday, officials urged consumers to be cautious about “boutique” brands of peanut butter, which had not previously figured in the recall. Although national brands are unaffected, FDA officials warn that some smaller companies may have received peanut products from the Peanut Corp. processing plant in Georgia.


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