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Peanut company lied on salmonella testing, FDA finds

Some batches were not retested for the bacteria before shipping, the agency says -- though Peanut Corp. of America said it did.

February 07, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II and Mary Engel

Peanut Corp. of America, the company that produced the contaminated peanut butter now being widely recalled, lied to Food and Drug Administration investigators about shipping batches of the food known to be tainted with salmonella bacteria, the agency said Friday.

The company had previously told the FDA that some lots of peanut butter had initially tested positive for the bacterium, then were retested and found to be negative before they were shipped. But further investigation showed that the company actually shipped some of the lots before the second tests were completed. Other lots were shipped without testing and, in some cases, no second test was performed even after the first one came back positive.

The lots were shipped to a vast array of food manufacturers and found their way into such items as cookies, crackers, health bars, ice cream and dog biscuits. Peanuts and peanut products from a Peanut Corp. plant in Georgia have now been linked to eight deaths and 575 illnesses in 43 states. In January, food companies began what has become an unprecedented nationwide recall of hundreds of snacks and other foods containing the products.

"I expect this outbreak to go on for a long time," in part because the foods have a long shelf life, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

The FDA did not formally announce the new findings about the company's testing, but rather made small revisions Thursday to an online report about the investigation. Only when a Washington Post reporter discovered the changes did the news become more widely known.

As part of the investigation, the FDA found that 12 contaminated lots from the small Blakely, Ga., plant were shipped to schools in California, Minnesota and Iowa from January 2007 to November 2007.

Also, 32 truckloads were shipped to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had been inspecting the plant, for its school lunch programs.

Susan Acker, a spokeswoman for the USDA, said she did not know of any illnesses linked to the lots shipped to the agency.

Even so, some observers said, the fact that the lots were shipped at all is indicative of reckless business practices.

"I hope these guys have good criminal defense lawyers," said Seattle attorney William Marler, who represents several people sickened in the latest round of contamination.

The Lynchburg, Va.-based company has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. It did not return phone calls Friday.

The Justice Department has begun a criminal investigation.

Stewart Parnell, owner and president of Peanut Corp. of America, and Dr. Frank M. Torti, acting FDA commissioner, are expected to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"The new developments are disturbing and suggest that this company had extensive problems," said committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). "Our committee will investigate both the company's actions and the government's response."

At a hearing Thursday of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) called for a complete overhaul of government oversight of food safety and suggested creating a stand-alone agency to monitor food safety.

President Obama has urged a "complete review" of the FDA to determine why it didn't contain the problem earlier.

In the wake of the deaths, FDA inspectors went into the plant on Jan. 9 -- the first time they had visited the plant since 2001 -- and finished their inspection Jan. 27. Their results were compiled into a form known as a 483.

That initial report said that some lots of peanut butter, roasted peanuts and milled peanuts had tested positive for salmonella, that they were retested and that the second tests came back negative. Only then were the products shipped, investigators concluded.

People familiar with the course of the investigation said Friday that the company objected to the initial 483 report, arguing that the first test was only "presumptive" and that it was not definitive for contamination.

The investigators went over the data more carefully, matching testing and shipping dates -- and reached a grimmer conclusion. They found that in many cases the products had been shipped before the second test was completed or in the absence of a second test.

In a statement e-mailed to reporters on Friday in response to questions, the FDA said: "In the course of gathering information during an investigation, it is sometimes necessary that FDA refine reports and other documents based on new facts that are discovered or further provided by records or by the firm."

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thomas.maugh@latimes.com

mary.engel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mary MacVean contributed to this report.

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latimes.com/peanut

Can you eat it?

Check our website for the FDA list of recalled foods containing peanuts.

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