January 31, 2009

Peanut Recall Provokes Criminal Investigation

Friday, after disclosing new details about the discovery of contaminated peanuts sent abroad by the same plant linked to a national salmonella outbreak, the government opened a criminal investigation, according to federal officials.

Stephen Sundlof, head of the Food and Drug Administration's food safety center, said that the Justice Department will join FDA investigators in looking into possible criminal violations.  The Peanut Corp. of America plant shipped allegedly tainted products of dozens of other food companies.

"It is an open investigation at this time," said Sundlof. "We can't really talk much about the investigation itself."

The shipment of chopped peanuts from Peanut Corp. of America in Blakely, Ga., was returned to the U.S. in April 2008, according to the FDA.  The peanuts were destroyed after back-and-forth efforts between the FDA and Peanut Corp. broke down and after the FDA rejected as "unacceptable" findings by a private lab hired by Peanut Corp. to analyze the company's peanuts.

"The shipment was refused by FDA for filth," FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "The importer requested to destroy the product."

"The FDA did everything appropriately in handling the activities associated with this shipment," Kwisnek said.

However, still over 500 people have been sickened as a result of the outbreak, and at least eight may have died because of salmonella infections.  Also, over 430 products have been pulled off the shelves in a recall that reaches to Canada and Europe.

The White House has now pledged a stricter oversight of food safety.

Robert Gibbs, press secretary, said Friday that President Barack Obama plans to name a new FDA commissioner and other oversight officials in coming days.  They will establish a "stricter regulatory structure" to prevent breakdowns in food safety, said Gibbs.

"I think the revelations have no doubt been alarming," said Gibbs. That a company which found salmonella in its own testing would continue to ship products "is beyond disturbing for millions of parents," he added.

The FDA last inspected the Blakely facility in 2001, when it was not being used to make peanut butter, according to FDA officials.

The facility had very little attention from the federal government until earlier this year, when a shipment of peanuts from the plant was returned from Canada because it was contaminated with metal fragments.  Afterwards, the FDA asked Georgia authorities to inspect.

The state officials, however, did not detect what FDA officials say was a salmonella problem at the plant dating back to at least June of 2007.

The first report of the return of the contaminated shipment of peanuts was by the Associated Press.


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