Broken links in food-safety chain hid peanut plants' risks

When Food and Drug Administration inspectors visited Peanut Corp. of America's plant here in late 2001, they noticed peanut-processing equipment had been improperly repaired with duct or cellophane tape.

The "widespread" use of tape — some torn — concerned the inspectors because it could harbor insects, was hard to sanitize and could lead to adulterated food.

PCA President Stewart Parnell, who had taken over the plant in February, said it was a good thing they hadn't come a couple months earlier, because they would have seen even more tape then, according to the inspectors' report. Parnell promised to fix the equipment.

But last year — months before a salmonella outbreak was linked to PCA's products from the plant — a private audit found tape still used on equipment and to cover wall seams.

Details matter in food safety, and the story of how PCA came to be held responsible for one of the nation's largest and most costly salmonella outbreaks is all about details — lots of them — unseen or unreported or not acted upon until it was too late.

Federal authorities have begun a criminal investigation of PCA, and the company is bankrupt. Records produced in the FDA's investigation of PCA and in congressional hearings on the outbreak portray a company that not only failed to heed warnings about its deficiencies, but allegedly shipped products that had tested positive for salmonella after retests were negative.

More important, the case reveals a food-safety system in which every key link in the chain of protection failed, food-safety officials and lawmakers say. The outbreak "is a poster child for everything that went wrong" with the USA's food-safety system, says William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner. "Down the line, you can find flaws and failures."

The U.S. food-safety net relies heavily on companies to be good operators. Yet PCA repeatedly failed to fix problems that were brought to its attention, according to regulatory records and documents made public in congressional hearings. Nestlé, for example, twice inspected PCA plants and chose not to take on PCA as a supplier because it didn't meet Nestlé's food-safety standards, according to Nestlé's audit reports in 2002 and 2006.

Regulators never found anything major wrong with PCA's Blakely plant until after the outbreak. Then, the FDA found major problems in sanitation, manufacturing and even plant design.

Unlike Nestlé, other PCA customers, including Kellogg, never audited the Blakely plant themselves. Instead, they selected PCA as a supplier based in part on an inspection by an auditing firm that was paid by PCA and that rates almost every client "excellent" or "superior," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., citing his committee's investigation.

The outbreak resulted in 700 reported illnesses and may have contributed to nine deaths. More than 3,600 products were recalled, costing the food industry hundreds of millions of dollars and signaling to parents that many of their children's favorites — peanut crackers, cookies, ice cream — could be dangerous.

The outbreak also caused heartbreak. One family alleges it stole a mother and a Christmas from them. Shirley Almer, a 72-year-old cancer survivor, died Dec. 21 after eating salmonella-tainted PCA peanut butter in an elder-care facility, her son Jeffrey testified to Congress.

"Shirley Almer loved this country but was terribly let down by a broken and ineffective food system," he said at the congressional hearing.

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