You'd think the Peanut Corporation of America was headquartered in China. They discovered salmonella twelve times over the past two years at a Georgia plant, yet they chose to ship out contaminated peanut butter regardless. Sounds a lot like the Chinese dairy company Sanlu that knowingly sold melamine-laced milk powder. In both cases, kids died. In both cases, the regulators were none the wiser. U.S. food processors aren't required to submit lab test results to the FDA. Even when the results may warn of an outbreak that could kill people. Neither are Chinese food processors.
China's system is broken, and so is ours. There are eerie similarities between the two. Hamstrung regulators, where agencies lack the budgets and the legal mandate to enforce quality control. Callous companies that refuse to police their own products -- even when it could prove fatal to consumers. And a population in the dark and at risk.
Unfortunately, both China and America are part of the same food and drug supply. Remember the Chinese blood thinner that killed American patients in American hospitals? We import more and more of our food and drugs from a country that can't police its own quality. The obvious fact that we can't is a Big Problem. Food and drug safety should be elevated to the priority of national security. China and America must work together immediately to untangle the Gordian knot that binds us together before more people die.
"Sometimes the milk can hurt you...It could get on your face then, it could eat your complexion, you could die from the danger, of the dangerous kitchen." -- Frank Zappa, "The Dangerous Kitchen"
Peanut Plant Had History of Health Lapses
The plant in Georgia that produced peanut butter tainted by salmonella has a history of sanitation lapses and was cited repeatedly in 2006 and 2007 for having dirty surfaces and grease residue and dirt buildup throughout the plant, according to health inspection reports. Inspection reports from 2008 found the plant repeatedly in violation of cleanliness standards.
Inspections of the plant in Blakely, Ga., by the State Agriculture Department found areas of rust that could flake into food, gaps in warehouse doors large enough for rodents to get through, unmarked spray bottles and containers and numerous violations of other practices designed to prevent food contamination. The plant, owned by the Peanut Corporation of America of Lynchburg, Va., has been shut down.
A typical entry from an inspection report, dated Aug. 23, 2007, said: “The food-contact surfaces of re-work kettle in the butter room department were not properly cleaned and sanitized.” Additional entries noted: “The food-contact surfaces of the bulk oil roast transfer belt” in a particular room “were not properly cleaned and sanitized. The food-contact surfaces of pan without wheels in the blanching department were not properly cleaned and sanitized.”
A code violation in the same report observed “clean peanut butter buckets stored uncovered,” while another cited a “wiping cloth” to “cover crack on surge bin.” Tests on samples gathered on the day of that inspection were negative for salmonella.
The inspection reports were provided by Georgia officials in response to a request made by The New York Times under the state’s open-records act.
Two inspection reports from 2008 found the plant out of compliance with practices for making sure “food and non-food contact surfaces were cleanable, properly designed, constructed and used.”
The state performs the inspections on behalf of the Food and Drug Administration as part of a contractual agreement with the federal agency, officials said.
Representatives of the Peanut Corporation of America did not respond to requests for comment.
The salmonella outbreak has sickened almost 500 people around the country and is linked to seven deaths. More than 125 products containing peanut butter or peanut paste from the Georgia plant have been recalled.
Salmonella Was Found at Peanut Plant Before
The Georgia food plant that federal investigators say knowingly shipped contaminated peanut butter also had mold growing on its ceiling and walls, and it has foot-long gaps in its roof, according to results of a federal inspection.
More than 500 people in 43 states have been sickened, and eight have died, after eating crackers and other products made with peanut butter from the plant, which is owned by the Peanut Corporation of America. More than 100 children under the age of 5 are among those who have been sickened.
The plant sells its peanut paste to some of the nation’s largest food manufacturers, including Kellogg and McKee Foods. As a result of the contamination, more than 100 products have been recalled, mostly cookies and crackers.
Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the outbreak to the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Ga. On Jan. 9, investigators descended on the plant for a thorough inspection, which was completed Tuesday.
The report from the inspection, first posted on the Internet by Bill Marler, a lawyer, cites 12 instances in 2007 and 2008 in which the company’s own tests of its product found contamination by salmonella.
In each case, the report states, “after the firm retested the product and received a negative status, the product was shipped in interstate commerce.”
It is illegal for a company to continue testing a product until it gets a clean test, said Michael Taylor, a food safety expert at George Washington University.
In a press conference Tuesday, Michael Rogers, director of the division of field investigations at the F.D.A., said that the company’s tests showing salmonella contamination should have led the company to take actions to eliminate the contamination. “It’s significant, because at the point at which salmonella was identified, it shouldn’t be there, based on the manufacturing process that’s designed to mitigate salmonella, actually eliminate it,” Mr. Rogers said.
The firm took no steps to clean its plant after the test results alerted the company to the contamination, he said, and the inspection team found problems with the plant’s routine cleaning procedures as well.
The plant also stored pallets of peanut butter next to supplies of peanuts, the inspectional report says. Finished products should be stored far from raw materials to reduce the chances of re-contamination of the finished goods, according to federal rules.
The report describes a plant that was not constructed to produce safe food. “There were open gaps observed” near air-conditioner intakes that were as large as a half-inch by two and one-half feet long, the report stated. Previous inspections of the plant by the Georgia State Agriculture Department found dirty surfaces, grease residue and dirt buildup throughout the plant. They also found rust residue that could flake into food, gaps in warehouse doors large enough for rodents to enter, and numerous other problems.
A spokesman for the Peanut Corporation did not immediately return a phone message.