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PCA knew peanut butter could have been contaminated, says FDA

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 28-Jan-2009

The Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) knew that its peanut products were potentially contaminated with salmonella before distributing them, US health officials said yesterday.

The revelation came as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded its investigation into the PCA, which found that the company had detected salmonella several times in its peanut processing plant over the past two years, but had done nothing to prevent its spread.

Speaking in a conference call with reporters, the FDA’s Michael Rogers said: “The team identified approximately 12 instances in 2007 and 2008 when the firm…identified some type of salmonella.” After receiving the results, he said that the PCA had sent the products to different laboratories for retesting, but continued to distribute them.

He added that investigating officials had observed a “failure to take steps to mitigate salmonella contamination and cross-contamination in the facility” such as carrying out thorough cleaning procedures.

The FDA did not inspect the plant in 2007 and 2008, but contracted out inspections to Georgia state officials, Rogers said.

Investigation results

FDA’s Stephen Sundlof said that the FDA had visited over 1000 firms that bought products from the PCA since beginning its investigation, and is monitoring shipments and checking records.

Officials have reported that they have found four separate strains of salmonella at the plant since their investigation began. The Salmonella Typhimurium strain linked to the outbreak was originally found in a jar of King Nut brand peanut butter, and yesterday officials confirmed that one of the other strains had been found in an unopened jar of the same brand. However, they continued to stress that jars of peanut butter found in grocery stores are not affected and that these other strains have not been linked to any cases of illness.

The FDA has issued the PCA with a violations notice, but possible repercussions for the firm are unclear at this stage.

More than 400 products have now been recalled by dozens of companies, including Kellogg’s, Ralcorp Frozen Baker, and Hy-Vee, as well as pet food manufacturers.

“We expect the list of recalled products to expand,” said Sundlof.

Industry response

In response to the news, president of the American Peanut Council Patrick Archer said in a statement: “The findings of the FDA report can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer, which stands alone in an industry that strives to follow the most stringent food safety standards.”

Health officials also said that consumers would not be able to tell if peanut ingredients came from the PCA plant as the company was distributing its products to over 70 other firms that use their own name on packaging.

The outbreak strain was detected on January 9 and so far 502 cases have been confirmed across 43 states, with one in Canada. Of those, 108 people have been hospitalized, and the strain has been linked to eight deaths.

Half of those sickened in the outbreak have been under the age of 16, with 21 percent under five.

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