Special Report: How the salmonella contamination got this big

By Jennifer Emert - bio | email

February  2, 2009

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - More than 500 people are sickened by Salmonella that the Food and Drug administration links to a Peanut Corporation of America Plant in Blakely. The FDA also says the Salmonella may have contributed to eight deaths.

We set out to find out how this could happen. What we found was an under-staffed Ag Inspection department that admits it is understaffed, has too few government inspections that led to self inspections and testing that failed to stop the salmonella outbreak.

As you shop the isles of your neighborhood grocery store, the recall of more than 400 food products that could have Salmonella laden peanut butter have many thinking twice about our food supply. Is it safe? The officials supposed to watch over the food supply it say in Georgia it is.

"On a day to day basis we consider our food supply safe," said Assistant CommissionerDepartment of Agriculture, Oscar Garrison.

We were surprised to learn that the Georgia Department of Agriculture only has 60 inspectors responsible for 16,000 food based facilities in the state. The Ag department readily admits they are understaffed.

"It's never enough, we would always like to have more, we could always use more when we're protecting the food but basically the Commissioner has run a very tight ship here in the department and as we've come into these lean budget times it's even harder facing the budget cuts that we're facing," Garrison said.

Infectious disease specialists say not enough is being done to protect you.

"The FDA has the responsibility for food safety, but over the years because of cut backs in the government and all the FDA and the USDA have gone to more of a self regulation inspection so there are not as many inspectors in food regulation as there used to be," said Dr. Craig Smith, Infectious Disease Specialist.

The FDA contracts with Georgia's Department of Agriculture for more than 100 inspections each year. Inspections can take up to three hours at a plant like the Blakely facility and are done a minimum of twice a year.

"We're looking at Sanitation issues, if there are mandatory record or record reviews then we would look at those. We follow the process flow of product through the facility and samples may or may not be taken depending on the sample load going on through the lab on any given week," said Garrison.

Then why would Georgia inspectors miss violations like the FDA found at Peanut Corporation of America when they went into the Blakely plant January ninth?

A list of 10 items included mold on the ceiling and walls in PCA's cooler where finished products were stored, a roller in the final roasting step that contained material that could not be adequately cleaned, roaches on the floor, and build up of residue on grinders, hoppers, and support beams on the peanut paste tanker line.

"An inspection is a snapshot in time. It's basically what's going at that particular moment when our inspector is present in the facility," Garrison said.

The FDA backs up the Department of Agriculture's previous inspections and says it's the responsibility of the industry to produce a safe product. According to the Ag Department self regulation failed to initially report at least 12 instances where they tested samples, got positive results, retested those samples and when a negative result was achieved sent the product out for consumption.

"When you're in charge of monitoring yourself then you're probably going to be a lot easier on yourself," said Smith.

"That's something that has to change from the state level," Garrison said.

Commissioner Tommy Irvin is urged his department to draft legislation and get it introduced immediately to the state legislature requiring Georgia's companies to report all of their independent testing result.

Just last week the Peanut Corporation of America expanded their recall to include food products from the last two years that could leave more empty spaces on grocery store shelves, so we asked the Department of Agriculture did they drop the ball on this investigation?

"No, I do not feel we dropped the ball on this case or the FDA, basically like I said, an inspection is a snap shot in time," Garrison said.

With two Salmonella outbreaks in southwest Georgia in the last two years, the Dept of Agriculture says they've learned a valuable lesson, self regulation isn't enough. The Department of Agriculture is now rerouting resources away from grocery store inspections of out of date stable products like boxed goods, crackers, or canned goods and putting a bigger emphasis on plant inspections and lab testing of samples.

They've asked the Governor for a $24 million lab to be built in Tifton, the heart of Georgia's agriculture community for more testing of the food supply. Right now, 4,500 samples run through the Atlanta lab annually, but say the lab often has to put samples on hold when an outbreak occurs and resources have to be redirected.

The Plant in Blakely is shut down for now and Friday the federal government announced a criminal investigation into the Salmonella outbreak.

In a statement released by owners and Peanut Corporation of America they deny seeking favorable results from any lab before it shipped its products out. They claim the FDA's documents contain some inaccuracies and don't mention the corrective actions the company's taken.

  • Read the Food and Drug Administration Report HERE
  • See a list of peanut items unaffected by the recall HERE

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