Peanut plant problem forces fresh recall

Peanut plant problem forces fresh recall

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Worried about salmonella, the Army said Thursday it's removing some peanut butter items from warehouses in Europe, the latest in an ever-growing list of recalled peanut products linked to a national salmonella outbreak.

Already more than 430 kinds of cakes, cookies and other goods in the civilian world have been pulled off store shelves in what the Food and Drug Administration is calling one of the largest product recalls in memory. The Army's recall does not affect Meals-Ready-to-Eat, but another kind of military grub called Unitized Group Rations-A, which provide a complete 50-person meal.

More than 500 people have gotten sick in the U.S. outbreak, and at least eight may have died as a result of salmonella infection.

At the center of the investigation is a Georgia peanut processing plant where federal inspectors reported finding roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other sanitary problems.

Managers at the Blakely, Ga., plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America continued shipping peanut products even after they were found to contain salmonella, the FDA said. The company shipped the food items after retesting them and getting negative results.

Peanut Corp. expanded its recall Wednesday to all peanut goods produced at the plant since Jan. 1, 2007. The company makes just 1 percent of the peanut products sold in the United States, but those products are ingredients in hundreds of other foods, from ice cream, to Asian-style sauces, to dog biscuits. Major national brands of peanut butter are not affected.

A senior lawmaker in Congress and Georgia's agriculture commissioner called for a criminal probe of the company, but the FDA said that would be premature while its own food safety investigation continues.

The company says it is fully cooperating with the government and has stopped all production at the plant. Peanut Corp. said in a statement it "categorically denies any allegations that the company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products."

Stewart Parnell, the firm's president, said that the recall was expanded out of an abundance of caution. "We have been devastated by this, and we have been working around the clock with the FDA to ensure any potentially unsafe products are removed from the market immediately," Parnell said.

Most of the older products in the expanded recall have probably been eaten already. Officials said they see no signs of any earlier outbreaks from those goods.

The recall covers peanut butter, peanut paste, peanut meal and granulated products, as well as all peanuts -- dry and oil roasted -- shipped from the factory. FDA officials could not quantify the amount of products being recalled.

Officials recommend that consumers check the FDA web site, which lists all the products being recalled, and toss out any that are named.

Salmonella had been found previously at least 12 times in products made at the plant, but production lines were never cleaned after internal tests indicated contamination, FDA inspectors said in a report. Products that initially tested positive were retested. When the company got a negative reading, it shipped the products out.

That happened as recently as September. A month later, health officials started picking up signals of the salmonella outbreak.

Michael Rogers, a senior FDA investigator, said it's possible for salmonella to hide in small pockets of a large batch of peanut butter. That means the same batch can yield both positive and negative results, he said. The products should have been discarded after they first tested positive.

Separately, senior congressional and state officials on Wednesday called for a federal probe of possible criminal violations at the plant.

The company's actions "can only be described as reprehensible and criminal," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees FDA funding. "This behavior represents the worst of our current food safety regulatory system."

In Georgia, the state's top agriculture official joined DeLauro in asking the Justice Department to determine whether the case warrants criminal prosecution. "They tried to hide it so they could sell it," said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "Now they've caused a mammoth problem that could destroy their company -- and it could destroy the peanut industry."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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