Inspectors found several violations of good manufacturing practices in the Georgia peanut butter factory at the center of an investigation into a nationwide salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people, federal officials said Tuesday.
The Food and Drug Administration said it completed its investigation into the outbreak it linked to the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Ga. The agency is to make a report public today.
Inspectors identified "approximately 12 instances in 2007 [to] 2008 where the firm, as part of their own internal testing program, identified some type of salmonella and released a product after it was retested in some cases by a different laboratory," Michael Rogers, director of the FDA's division of field investigations, said in a telephone news briefing.
Asked about the retests, he said: "I'll characterize it this way. The inspection revealed that the firm's internal testing program identified salmonella in the facility related to a specific sample that they pulled. In some cases there was a subsequent lab used that reached a negative conclusion about the sample."
He would not identify the lab.
Rogers said inspectors also found "a number of deficiencies related to the firm's cleaning program and procedures" to prevent cross-contamination.
The actions were "clearly a violation of good manufacturing practices," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The state of Georgia inspects the plant under contract with the FDA. But "there is no requirement that a firm inform FDA of a positive internal testing of their finished products," Rogers said.
As of Sunday, when the most recent data were available, the salmonella outbreak had sickened 501 people in 43 states and one in Canada. One-fifth of those who fell ill were under 5 years old, said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eight deaths -- all among adults -- "appear to be associated" with the outbreak, he said. The most recent victim got sick Jan. 9.
Peanut Corp. of America released a statement Tuesday: "PCA has cooperated fully with FDA from Day One during the course of this investigation. We have shared with them every record that they have asked for that is in our possession and we will continue to do so."
Tauxe said other kinds of salmonella that were not associated with the outbreak were found at the plant. The other types were not identified.
But, he said, the findings "indicate there is certainly a salmonella problem in the plant, even though they're not associated with the outbreak."
Peanut Corp. of America shipped its goods to companies that used them in products such as cakes, cookies, energy bars and dog biscuits, federal officials said. Its peanut butter went to institutions such as nursing homes.
The fact that salmonella was found in closed containers of Peanut Corp. of America products was "clear proof that the organism was in the plant," Sundlof said. But he could not say whether the specific salmonella that had made people sick was found in the plant.
Government officials have visited about 1,000 companies that bought products from Peanut Corp of America. The list of items that firms voluntarily recalled continues to grow.
The American Peanut Council, an industry group, said "the vast majority of peanut products and foods containing peanut products" were not affected and it was compiling a list of those products. No major brand of jarred peanut butter has been implicated in the outbreak.
The plant has been closed during the investigation. The company laid off most of the roughly 50 workers at the facility in Blakely, which calls itself the "Peanut Capital of the World."
Peanut Corp. of America, a family-owned business based in Lynchburg, Va., sells peanut butter in containers ranging from five to 1,700 pounds, the FDA said. Its paste is sold in sizes from 35 pounds to tankers.