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If the salmonella doesn’t make you sick, Peanut Corporation of America will

Submitted by on Thursday, 29 January 2009 One Comment

So much to be outraged over in the peanut-butter recall, so little time.

So let’s just hit the high spots, first with the Cliff’s Notes of what can be considered nothing less than a massive systemic failure on so many fronts.

Peanut Corporation of America has recalled everything produced at the company’s Blakely, Ga., plant from June 2007 until now, even though state inspectors consistently gave the company a clean bill of health despite repeated sanitation and contamination problems dating back to 2006.

Internal company reports showed a history of testing rigged over that time period to mask the presence of salmonella, results the company turned over to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only after executives were threatened with terrorism charges.

The FDA found those reports, along with mold and salmonella, during a trip to the plant this month, but waited four more days to go public with anything. The FDA visit came only after Centers for Disease Control and Minnesota officials linked a salmonella outbreak to PCA. Ordinarily, FDA would simply rely on state inspectors.

And now for the gory details:

Aug. 23, 2007: Georgia Department of Agriculture inspector Susan Alexander found five violations severe enough at the plant that she ordered them fixed by the next day, according to documents posted at food poisoning attorney Bill Marler’s blog site. Four involved sanitation.

She’d also found four violations during a February 2007 inspection, including food residue on a wall and “condensation” in a cooler. She’d found contamination in that area, by the way, during an August 2006 inspection as well. She also found sanitation problems in January and December 2006.

June 10, 2008: Georgia agriculture inspector Donna Adams saw three violations this trip – contamination and sanitation problems – and let the company fix them all that day.

Oct. 23, 2008:  Adams found black build-up in one container, but took the company at its word that the problem arose just that day and declared the problem corrected that day when officials vowed to quit refilling the containers.

She found mildew and “possibly some static dust” and ordered the company to clean up by Nov. 5.

Jan. 9, 2009: A team of U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors and microbiologists visited the plant and found that company testing had turned up salmonella a dozen times since June 2007, according to additional documents on Marler’s blog. The company kept retesting the products until they passed and sold them anyway.

The company turned over the records only after the FDA told officials they had to under a 2002 law aimed at preventing bioterrorism, the Washington Post reported.

Inspectors found four instances of salmonella in the plant that day. They saw mold growing in a cooler – the area where the state inspector had repeatedly let the company “correct” condensation and mildew problems. They found water stains around air conditioners and skylights, with food stored under the leaks. Officials believe a leaky roof contributed to a 2007 salmonella outbreak in Peter Pan peanut butter.

Jan 13, 2009: The FDA distributed a news release on PCA’s behalf announcing a “voluntary” recall because peanut butter produced after July 1, 2008 “has the potential to be contaminated with salmonella. ” There is no mention of products other than peanut butter and no mention of the FDA inspection four days earlier.

The recall was voluntary because the FDA has no authority to order foods other than baby formula removed from shelves.

Jan. 16, 2009: The first hint of the magnitude of PCA’s “potential” problem comes when Kellogg announces a nationwide recall – voluntary, of course – of sandwich crackers and cookies. The release also drops in this little nugget: “PCA has expanded their earlier recall to include peanut paste.”

Jan. 28, 2009: PCA again expands the recall – voluntary, of course – to include everything processed at the Blakely plant after June 2007. “PCA is acting out of an abundance of caution and with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s help to recall all products manufactured in its Georgia facility,” the release, transmitted via the FDA, said.

“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,” PCA president Stewart Parnellsaid in the release. “Additionally, we are working alongside state and federal food safety experts in every way we can to help them protect consumers, both now and in the future.

Jan. 30, 2009: The database at the FDA’s Web site numbers more than 400 products – all voluntary recalls, of course. More than 500 people have fallen ill. Eight have died. Marler’s filed two lawsuits.

“We have repeatedly requested that PCA immediately pay medical expenses and wage loss for all of the 501 people sickened by their products,” Marler said on his blog. “There has been no response from them, none. It’s unconscionable.”

Government officials continued their shoulder shrugs.

“It’s just as if it were an individual citizen: We expect individual citizens to obey the law. Occasionally, they don’t obey the law, and when they don’t, it’s the responsibility of the regulatory agency to take the appropriate action, which is what we’re doing.”

It’s a good thing the FDA isn’t in charge of anything important. Like, say, products that go into our bodies every day.

And it’s a good time to be peanut allergic.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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One Comment »

  • Bill Marler said:

    Very well done time line – keep it up.