A peanut plant in Georgia identified as the source of an outbreak of salmonella shipped out products that managers knew might have been tainted, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said on Tuesday.
An FDA inspection of the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Georgia, also found at least two strains of salmonella bacteria at the plant, although they were strains that have not been associated with the current outbreak, the officials said.
More than 500 people in 43 states and Canada have been sickened in the outbreak, which also may be linked with eight deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of those made ill are children.
"The team identified approximately 12 instances in 2007 and 2008 where the firm identified some type of salmonella ... and released the products," the FDA's Michael Rogers told reporters in a telephone briefing.
Records at the plant showed that after the company tested the peanut products and found salmonella, it sent at least some to an outside lab that showed no contamination. The products were then illegally shipped for sale, Rogers said.
"There (were) no steps taken (by) the firm as far as cleaning or to minimize cross-contamination," Rogers said.
Details of precisely what the FDA found will be released on Wednesday, he added.
Peanut Corp. of America said it would continue to cooperate with the FDA's investigation. "We have shared with them every record that they have asked for that is in our possession and we will continue to do so," the company said in a statement.
The CDC's Dr. Robert Tauxe said inspectors have visited at least 1,000 firms that used products from Peanut Corp. of America. More than 180 products, including crackers and peanut butter have been recalled and the FDA said more recalls could be expected.
Some companies said they did not use PCA products but recalled products temporarily to be cautious.
"Starbucks can confirm that our products are not affected by this recall as the Peanut Corporation of America is not a Starbucks supplier," the company said in a statement.
"We are currently working to reinstate our product in the near future."
The CDC and the FDA say the plant's products were not sold at retail, but in industrial-sized cans of peanut butter used by schools and other institutions, and in peanut paste used industrially to make snacks, pet treats and other foods.
The outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium appears to have begun in September, the CDC and FDA said.
Salmonella causes diarrhea, vomiting and fever. While it usually clears up without treatment, it can kill the old, very young and patients with other serious illnesses.
Tauxe said the S. Typhimurium strain was found in peanut butter in Minnesota and Connecticut and in peanut butter crackers in Canada.
Several members of Congress have promised to introduce legislation to strengthen the ability of the FDA, CDC, U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies to protect food safety.
The CDC estimates that 76 million people in the United States become sick every year from foodborne illnesses and 5,000 die.
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