CBSN

FDA: Co. Knowingly Shipped Tainted Goods

Open container of peanut butter.
iStockphoto
Federal health officials say the Georgia peanut plant at the center of the salmonella outbreak knowingly shipped tainted products.

Previously, the Food and Drug Administration had said Peanut Corp. of America retested products after getting an initial positive result for salmonella. The agency said the company shipped the goods after follow-up tests came back negative.

But Friday, the FDA said the company sent out peanut butter, chopped peanuts and peanut meal that had tested positive even before it got back any negative findings.

Peanut Corp. denies any wrongdoing. The government has opened a criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, officials at the Department of Agriculture said Friday that peanut butter and roasted peanuts processed by the Peanut Corp. of America were sent to schools in California, Minnesota and Idaho.

A salmonella outbreak blamed on the company has sickened at least 575 people in 43 states. At least eight have died. More than 1,300 foods that used ingredients from the company's processing plant in Blakely, Ga., have been recalled. While the outbreak appears to be slowing down, new illnesses are still being reported.

On Thursday, federal officials announced nearly 168,000 emergency meal kits sent to Kentucky in the wake of an ice storm had been recalled more than two weeks earlier because some contained peanut butter that could have been contaminated by salmonella, federal officials said Thursday.

An apparent communication breakdown among federal officials allowed the kits to be sent to Kentucky to help feed hundreds of thousands of people left without power at the height of last week's storm. The storm also swept through Arkansas, but federal officials don't believe people there got the meal kits affected by the recall.

People were warned Thursday not to eat the peanut butter packets. No illnesses have been reported and recalls were ordered out of "an abundance of caution," said Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.

Also Thursday, lawmakers reacted angrily when told that food makers and state safety inspectors are allowed to keep tests results secret. That keeps federal health officials in the dark even when products have been contaminated by salmonella or other dangerous bacteria.

"I'd like to see some people go to jail," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on a deadly salmonella outbreak linked to a Georgia peanut plant that has sickened more than 550 people and killed at least eight.

Federal law does not require reporting of contaminants if companies receive private test results showing them or states find them in their inspections, said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, food safety director for the Food and Drug Administration.

"That's one of the very serious loopholes we need to plug," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and the committee's ranking minority member.

Sundlof defended the FDA's handling of the current outbreak, but also noted gaps in the country's food safety system that hamper the agency's efforts. The FDA learned only weeks ago that the Peanut Corp. of America had received a series of private tests dating back to 2007 showing salmonella in their products from the Georgia plant, but later shipped the items after obtaining negative test results.