All peanut products from Georgia plant recalled

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2009 - 1:02 AM

The salmonella outbreak prompted a recall of all products from one Georgia facility, and a growing list of foods to avoid.

Every peanut and every ounce of peanut butter and paste shipped from a Georgia processing plant over the past two years were recalled Wednesday in an expanded response to the nationwide salmonella outbreak that has made 500 people sick.

Federal officials said the recall is likely to be among the largest in U.S. history, but had no idea how much food will be involved.

The announcement came hours after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report that said Peanut Corp. of America, owner of the plant, sold peanuts and peanut butter and paste that initially tested positive for salmonella on 12 occasions in 2007 and 2008.

The expanded, voluntary recall covers dry and roasted peanuts as well as processed products such as peanut meal and paste made in the plant and sold in bulk. It covers products shipped from the plant since Jan. 1, 2007. The initial recall covered 31 million pounds of peanut butter and paste made since August.

All of these products were sold to distributors and food makers, and officials said jars of peanut butter sold in supermarkets still are not affected. The FDA has published a list of 430 recalled snack bars, crackers, cookies and other foods, and it is expected to grow.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, urged consumers to check a searchable list at www.fda.gov to avoid eating peanut products they're unsure of and to wash their hands after handling potentially contaminated products. Information also is available at 1-800-CDC-INFO.

Three of the eight deaths associated with the outbreak have been reported in Minnesota. Another 33 people in the state have been sickened with diarrhea and other symptoms of salmonella infections. By testing and investigating those cases, state Health Department epidemiologists tied the outbreak to the company's peanut butter on Jan. 9.

The third Minnesotan whose death has been linked to the outbreak was identified Wednesday as Doris Flatgard, 87, formerly of the Bergen, Minn., area, who died Jan 4. Minneapolis attorney Fred Pritzker said her family intends to sue the company. She lived in the Good Samaritan Society-Oakwood nursing home in Brainerd, Minn., and usually ate peanut butter and toast for breakfast, he said.

All three of the Minnesota deaths were residents of Good Samaritan homes in Brainerd, though each lived in a different building. The Centers for Disease Control said all eight of those who died were over 58 years old.

'Unconscionable' conduct

Michael Rogers, a top FDA investigations official, said the peanut processing plant in Blakely, Ga., sometimes shipped out products that tested positive for salmonella if retesting produced a negative result. He said that violates good manufacturing practice because "salmonella can exist in small pockets of products such as peanut butter, so it is possible to draw both a negative and positive sample from the same product lot."

He would not say whether the company could face criminal charges. The plant remains shut down, and officials said a series of sanitation problems, including water leaks, must be corrected before it could reopen.

In a statement, the company said it is not aware of illnesses linked to the newly recalled products, but was "acting out of an abundance of caution." It defended its food safety record, saying its goal over the past 33 years has been to follow FDA good-manufacturing practices and that its "extraordinary measures to identify and recall products" are a sign of its commitment to customers. It also denied that the company sought favorable test results from a lab in order to ship its products.

Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, a trade group, said no reputable company would sell a product with a positive salmonella result, regardless of the outcome of a second test. He said that the FDA findings "can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer" and that the company's conduct "must be condemned in the strongest possible terms."

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who has been suing food makers for years on behalf of people who get sick, said he's never seen a company accused of shipping products that tested positive for a foodborne pathogen. "It's insane," he said. "You have to ask, what are these people thinking when the product is going into institutional settings with kids and older people? It's just unconscionable."

The FDA's inspection of the Blakely plant found sanitation problems that weren't noted during eight inspections by the Georgia Department of Agriculture since 2005. Hatch, of the FDA, said his agency is reviewing the Georgia inspections, which are done under contract to the federal government, but he did not criticize state officials for missing problems in the plant.

Neither state nor federal officials had access to the company's internal test results until the FDA's intensive investigation began this month, he added.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090

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