Salmonella outbreak now reaches criminal level

By Jennifer Emert - bio | email

January 30 , 2009

BLAKELY, GA (WALB) -  The Food and Drug Administration's investigative branch with assistance from the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the Salmonella outbreak.

The announcement was made as the FDA released more details about a shipment of peanuts from Peanut Corporation of America's Blakely plant that were rejected by a Canadian company after metal fragments were found in the product.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture also released pictures of a practice of reusing totes that the company discontinued at the inspectors request. The FDA's investigation of the Blakely plant has also grown again.

Newly released photos from the Department of Agriculture show at least one process at the Blakely Peanut Corporation of America plant that inspectors insisted stop. The company planned to re-use the bags that a inspector noted shows butter left on them as well as black buildup.

The Blakely plant suspended the practice. The FDA also explained peanut from the Blakely plant were rejected by a Canadian company after metal shavings were found in the product.

"They tried to recondition the shipment due to the metals and try and clean it up but it could not be done, and as a result of that working with the FDA it was decided it was best to destroy the product," said Domenic Veneziano, Director of Import Operations, Office of Regulatory Affairs.

The White House pledged stricter oversight of food safety, as the federal government launched a criminal investigation. Congress will hold hearings on the issue and south Georgia's Congressman scolded the FDA for not doing more.

"We've been struggling over the past few years trying to get the FDA and the food safety agencies during the pervious administration to really ask for the resources they needed to be able to accomplish the job of keeping America's food safe," said Rep. Sanford Bishop

Today Georgia Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Senator John Bullock introduced a bill that requires all companies to turn over all independent inspection reports.

"This legislation gives them the ability to see those test results and the requirement that if one tests positive to something dangerous they have to notify them," said Bulloch.

A third lawsuit has also been filed against Peanut Corporation of America in California on behalf of three year old Bryson Trone who ate peanut butter cracker sandwiches and was hospitalized for five days. The family of a seven year old and a 72-year-old also filed suit. Health officials say the very young and old are more easily compromised with Salmonella.

"People that are immune compromised are more likely going to be infected and affected worse so that's the extremes of age," said Southwest Georgia Public Health Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant.

The FDA also warned consumers of eating what they call Boutique peanut butter, home made peanut butter that could be made with peanuts from the Blakely plant.

The FDA has also expanded the number of distributors they're talking with to include 350 additional customers of the Blakley plant's initial 77 companies they sell product to.