February 2, 2009

Reports Emerge Over Inspection Of Tainted Peanut Plant

The peanut butter plant now at the center of a national salmonella outbreak noted only two minor violations in October, according to a Georgia health inspector who toured the facility.

However, federal inspectors found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other sanitation problems less than three months later, the Associated Press reported.

The lapse is a major concern and shows state inspectors are spread thin and might need more training on how to spot unsanitary conditions, food safety experts said on Monday.

Michael Doyle, head of the food safety center at the University of Georgia, said he was surprised to find that many major deficiencies were observed at one time, but none of them were picked up previously.

Only two violations were noted in October during a state inspection report of the Peanut Corp. of America plant: tote containers with butter residue and "black buildup" and "mildew and possibly some static dust on ceiling of butter storage room."

Despite a push by the state to check for the bacteria after a salmonella outbreak was traced to another Georgia peanut butter plant in 2007, no samples of the finished product were taken for salmonella testing during the October inspection.

The October report showing only minor violations seems to conflict with conditions observed by at least one former employee, though others said they saw no problems.

One former plant worker, Jonathan Prather, said he sometimes saw old and soggy peanuts being used as well as other unsanitary conditions. He claims managers ignored him when he raised concerns about the plant's cleanliness. Prather and many others were laid off after the scandal broke.

"The only thing they said is, 'We'll handle this, we'll handle the problem,'" he said. "But I don't see that they did because if they had, none of this would have happened."

Earlier in the week, Agricultural Commissioner Tommy Irvin defended his inspectors, saying they did the best they could with limited manpower and funding.

"The department has about 60 inspectors responsible for examining 15,000 sites - or 250 food sources per inspector - ranging from ice machines to sprawling factories," Irvin said. He added that some territories are left uncovered, forcing the state to shift employees from one area to another.

Peanut Corp. issued a general statement late Friday that emphasized its top concern continues to be ensuring public safety. The company has not fielded any further questions from the press.

"For Peanut Corporation to engage in any discussion of the facts at this point is premature," the statement said.

On Friday, the FDA said it had asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into Peanut Corp., which authorities say shipped products that initially tested positive for salmonella after retesting and getting a negative result.

Some 529 people have been sickened as a result of the outbreak, and at least eight deaths may also be related. So far, more than 430 products have been recalled.

Prather claims managers were more concerned with the company's bottom line than with properly cleaning the plant and equipment.

Both soggy peanuts and peanuts in packages marked with dates showing they were five or six years old were dumped into the production line, Prather said. Peanuts need to be kept dry to prevent mold and other risks, according to the American Peanut Council, an industry trade association.

A dry roaster at the plant was halted only one day a month for cleaning, he added. Doyle, the food safety expert, said peanut roasters should be cleaned and sanitized at least once a week.

"What they needed to do and what they didn't do is clean up right," said Prather, who noted the plant was sometimes shut down for cleaning on the weekends but said that wasn't enough.

"The state would likely have to provide inspectors with more in-depth training in terms of the really critical areas," said Doyle, who has been asked by the American Peanut Council to help review the industry's practices.

"It's a problem that likely spans far beyond Georgia."

He said the federal government is going to have to take a lead role to develop criteria for different producers. "I think this peanut plant is just an example of the weakness in our system."


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