Most important, the FDA discovered that PCA shipped products that had tested positive for salmonella, then negative on a retest. Shipping such product is "universally condemned," the FDA's Sundlof testified to Congress, because salmonella can be missed in tests. Products should be destroyed after one positive result, regulators say.
But nine inspections of the Blakely plant — by Georgia agricultural inspectors in 2006, 2007 and 2008 — found only minor issues, many of which were quickly fixed, said Oscar Garrison, Georgia assistant Agriculture commissioner. Two of the checks were done for the FDA.
Garrison defends the state inspections as a "snapshot in time." Even rigorous inspections wouldn't always detect problems if a processor is intent on "breaking the law," he said.
But Stupak, who held two hearings on the outbreak, said the FDA's 2009 inspection report notes numerous violations of good manufacturing practices that weren't found by the state and which FDA officials later testified should have been caught.
The PCA case has cast a spotlight on the rigor of state inspections done for the FDA. Some states do a good job; some don't, Hubbard said. The FDA knows it needs to raise standards, said Michael Taylor, food-safety expert at George Washington University.
"There's a basic breakdown when an FDA-contracted inspection doesn't detect problems that seem so obvious," Taylor said.
PCA, which closed its three plants after the outbreak, has disputed some of the FDA's assertions. Parnell, who shares PCA's ownership with an investor group, worked at its Virginia headquarters. He and other former PCA managers refused to comment.
The plant in Blakely used to employ 50 but now sits deserted. Its paint is faded and chipped, as if a symbol of the deficiencies the FDA said were inside.
When the outbreak hit, PCA supplied 2.5% of the nation's peanut products, including peanut butter sold to institutions and paste and meal used in foods made by hundreds of companies.
To win customers, Parnell "extolled" the fact that an auditor, AIB International, had rated the plant as "superior," said King Nut CEO Martin Kanan at a congressional hearing. King Nut sold peanut butter under its name that was made by PCA.
That rating also satisfied Kellogg, which began buying PCA's peanut paste for sandwich crackers in 2007. Kellogg CEO David Mackay testified at a congressional hearing in March that PCA was a "dishonest supplier" and that Kellogg had done "everything we could" to ensure safety.
PCA had been audited by AIB, "the most commonly used auditor in the U.S.," Mackay said. PCA had verified that it had fixed issues raised in the first audit in 2006, Kellogg says. Kellogg visited the plant but didn't audit. Kellogg also got certificates from PCA — issued by private labs paid by PCA — saying the product was salmonella-free, Kellogg says.
But AIB's rating of PCA has since come under attack, along with the common practice of foodmakers paying for their own audits.
Stupak said congressional investigators found that AIB gives 98% of companies a "superior" or "excellent" rating. He also said that e-mails between AIB and PCA point to a relationship that's too cozy to ensure a tough audit.
"You lucky guy. I am your AIB auditor," AIB's Eugene Hatfield wrote PCA on Dec. 22, says an e-mail released by Stupak's committee.