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FDA joins criminal investigation into Peanut Corporation salmonella

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 02-Feb-2009
Last updated on 02-Feb-2009 at 17:19 GMT2009-02-02T17:19:04Z

The US Food and Drug Administration joined the Justice Department on Friday in a criminal investigation of the PCA, the manufacturer at the center of a salmonella outbreak which has sickened 529 people and may have caused eight deaths.

The announcement follows the revelation last week that the Peanut Corporation of America knew some of its peanut products were contaminated with salmonella prior to distributing them.

Speaking in a teleconference with reporters, the FDA’s Stephen Sundlof said: “The FDA’s office of criminal investigation is involved with a justice department investigation of PCA.” However, Sundlof declined to give further details of the case.

Upcoming hearing

Meanwhile, the Energy and Commerce Committee has announced plans for its Oversight Subcommittee to hold a hearing on February 11 in order to examine what went wrong at the plant, as well as what the FDA and industry can do to prevent further outbreaks.

Chairman of the Committee Rep. Henry A. Waxman said in a statement: “The situation at the plant is alarming. It shows major gaps in our food safety system. I am extremely troubled by reports that the plant tested positive for salmonella numerous times but nothing was done to ensure that the product did not go on the market.”

The PCA has declined to comment on the FDA’s involvement in the criminal investigation, but issued a statement which said: “For Peanut Corporation to engage in any discussion of the facts at this point is premature.”

State officials have found widespread salmonella contamination and food safety violations at the PCA’s Blakely, Georgia plant, which has since been closed. Prior to the Salmonella typhimurium outbreak, the plant had not been inspected by the FDA since 2001, although Georgia state officials had visited three times.

Product recall

PCA extended its product recall last week to include all peanut products manufactured at the plant since January 1 2007, as FDA officials revealed they had found four separate strains of salmonella. The recall had previously only included peanut butter and peanut paste produced at the plant since July 1 2008.

Over 400 products have now been recalled, and the list of products affected continues to expand, now said to include some “boutique” brands of peanut butter, such as those ground in-store, although the FDA said that it still does not consider major-brand jars of peanut butter bought in grocery stores to be affected. In a teleconference with reporters, Sundlof said that the product recall was “among the largest recalls that we have had.”

Previous PCA contamination

He also said that a shipment of chopped peanuts from the PCA had been rejected by Canadian authorities last April, after it was found to be contaminated with metal shavings. The PCA had been unable to decontaminate the shipment, he said, so it was destroyed in November, in order to prevent the tainted food from entering the food supply chain.

The current salmonella outbreak is ongoing. So far, 116 people have been hospitalized, and of the eight deaths that have been linked to the strain, the FDA said that all have been aged 59 or over.

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