Major Expansion Announced in Peanut Recall

Georgia plant will recall every single peanut product made in last two years.

January 28, 2009, 3:20 PM

Jan. 28, 2009— -- The Food and Drug Administration today announced a massive expansion of the peanut butter recall linked to salmonella poisoning after shocking revelations that a Georgia plant knowingly shipped peanut products that could have been tainted.

The FDA announced that a closed Georgia peanut processing plant will recall every single peanut product it made in the past two years. The expansion means that the number of recalled food and pet treats -- already in the hundreds -- will continue to grow.

Health officials today said the recall is among the largest ever. Eight deaths and 501 illnesses in 43 states are now thought to be linked to the salmonella outbreak.

The broadened recall comes after a scathing FDA inspection report suggested the plant in Blakely, Ga., owned by Peanut Corporation of America, knowingly sent out peanut products that may have been tainted with salmonella.

"If this doesn't rise to a criminal level I don't know what does," food safety attorney Bill Marler told ABC News on Wednesday. Marler is suing the company on behalf of one consumer.

Marler's current advice? "I would think twice right now about giving a peanut butter product of any kind to someone under the age of 5 or over the age of 70."

According to the FDA inspection report, the plant found some type of salmonella in its products 12 times over the last year-and-a-half. After working with outside labs to test the products, the plant then shipped the products if follow-up tests came back negative, despite the initial findings.

"The company seemed to only believe the second tests, the one that didn't show it was there," Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told ABC News. "It's critical that where you have repeated findings of salmonella you treat the product as though it could be contaminated."

The FDA inspections also documented unsanitary conditions at the plant, including cockroaches, mold and leaking roofs.

"This is one of the worst inspection reports I've seen in 15 years of practice," Marler said.

The plant will now recall every peanut product it has made since Jan. 2007 -- whether peanut paste, peanut butter, dry and roasted peanuts, granulated peanuts used in chunky peanut butter and others. The recall previously covered only peanut butter and peanut paste dating from July 1, 2008.

"To any consumers affected by these issues, to the food industry and to peanut consumers everywhere, we are sorry our process fell short of not only our goals, but more importantly, your expectations," the Peanut Corporation of America said in a statement late Wednesday.

"We want our customers and consumers to know that we are continuing to work day and night with the FDA and other officials to determine the source of the problem and ensure that it never happens again," the company added.

Even the industry said Wednesday afternoon it can't defend the company's actions.

"Our industry again follows a strict code of practice," said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council. "We're proud of our industry and this company is not indicative of the companies within our industry."

Brand-Name Peanut Butter OK

The FDA said today it still believes brand name jars of peanut butter in grocery stores are OK to eat.

"Our message is still: People should not be concerned about national name brand peanut butter in jars from super markets," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

More than 70 companies have bought peanut butter and peanut paste from the Blakely, Ga. processing plant. Before today, the list of recalled products had already included items such as peanut butter-flavored cookies, candies, cereals, crackers, ice cream and dog biscuits.

As numbers climb higher, people like Marler are questioning the government's ability to keep food safe as products make their way through a complex supply chain from farms to grocery store shelves to kitchen pantries.

Today Marler said it's key for the government to step up its efforts and require "across-the-board bacterial and viral testing on all ready-to-eat products."

"The reality is that, frankly, U.S. companies do a marvelous job at poisoning our own citizens," Marler said. "Our focus on imported products are frankly misplaced given the fact that most food-borne illness outbreaks that occur in the United States are caused by homegrown companies."

To make sure shoppers don't get sick, health officials have posted several resources online, including updates on recalled products listed by the FDA and updates on illnesses, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control.

The American Peanut Council has also posted a list of companies that say their products are safe to eat.

"Today, FDA's food program is a shell of what is needed," DeWaal said. "FDA has repeated incidences of national outbreaks linked to its products. And we have to believe it's because they simply don't have the staff or the resources to adequately oversee food safety."

"It is the responsibility of the industry to produce a safe product," Sundlof said. "The FDA is not in plants on a continuous basis, we do rely on inspections to find problems when they exist."

ABC News' Lauren Cox contributed to this report.

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