BLAKELY, GA. — David James recalled opening a container of peanuts at the processing plant here and seeing baby mice. "It was filthy and nasty all around the place," said James, who worked in shipping.
Terry Jones, a janitor, remembered the roof that constantly leaked rain.
James Griffin, a cook at the plant, recounted this simple rule: "I never ate the peanut butter, and I wouldn't allow my kids to eat it."
In interviews, these men and another employee from the now-closed plant provided a glimpse into the day-to-day operations at Peanut Corp. of America.
Federal officials are investigating the plant in connection with an outbreak of salmonella poisoning that has sickened nearly 600 people in more than 40 states. Eight may have died because of it.
The former workers of the family-owned firm based in Lynchburg, Va., said the problems were obvious and long-running.
"It was pretty filthy around there," said Jones, 50, who said he worked in the sanitation department for eight months before being laid off.
Recalling rainwater leaking into the plant, he said, "It was coming in through the roof and the vents, but that didn't stop them from making the paste."
Jones said he earned $6.55 an hour but was happy to have the job, which included mopping water and setting traps that sometimes caught three or four rats a day.
A recent Food and Drug Administration inspection report did not note specific signs of rodents. But it did cite large openings along the sides and tops of the trailers that contained containers of raw or roasted peanuts. It also noted roaches; mold on the walls and ceiling and in the storage cooler; dirty utensils and equipment used in food preparation; and gaps in the roof, allowing for wet conditions that could cause salmonella contamination.
"There were open gaps observed as large as 1/2 inches x 2 1/2 feet at the air conditioner intakes located in the roof of the firm. Water stains were also observed on the ceiling around the air conditioner intakes," the report stated.
The report also noted that rainwater had leaked along the edges of skylights: "Totes of finished, roasted product and a roasted nut packaging line are located directly underneath these areas."
The company has said that it does not agree with all the FDA findings and has taken corrective measures. A spokeswoman said she could not respond to specific allegations.
The former workers interviewed said they saw many of these problems and more.
Griffin, 27, who operated the roasting machines, said he cleaned them every two weeks. He said the plant was not as dirty as it has been portrayed by some, but it was not always as clean in the area where peanut butter and paste were produced.
Teresa Spencer, 30, who said she worked at the plant for two years before being laid off in 2007, said employees on the peanut line -- not trained as cleaners -- were often required to clean the plant and did so inefficiently.
James, 36, said he worked in the shipping area for eight months before leaving last year. He said he saw workers put new stickers on buckets of peanut paste that were out of date.
"Some of the bags of nuts had holes in them, and you could tell rats had eaten through them. And they would put tape on them or sew them up and send them out," James said.
He said that the employees often talked among themselves about the conditions, but that most workers did not complain to management because they wanted to keep their jobs.
"I'm not surprised this happened," James said. "I just hate that people died."
Tribune staff writer Sam Roe contributed to this report.