Criminal Investigation Launched in Salmonella Outbreak

Criminal investigation launched into plant at the center of salmonella outbreak.

ByABC News
January 30, 2009, 3:20 PM

Jan. 30, 2009— -- The federal government has launched a criminal investigation into the Georgia peanut processing plant linked to a national salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 500 people and killed eight, officials said today.

The criminal probe will be carried out by the Food and Drug Administration's criminal division and the Department of Justice.

The FDA said there have been 28 new cases of salmonella-related illness diagnosed since last Sunday.

The investigation came after a fresh report surfaced about bad peanuts coming out of the Georgia plant before the health scare erupted. Today the FDA said it wasn't until that shipment was rejected that the FDA knew this plant was in the peanut butter business.

The FDA also said for the first time that some peanut butter on store shelves may not be safe to eat. Health officials repeated assurances that major national brands were considered safe, but said some boutique brands may be suspect.

Watch "World News With Charles Gibson" TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. ET for the full report.

A fall 2008 FDA incident report first described today by the Associated Press documented that a peanut shipment from Peanut Corporation of America's Blakely, Ga. processing plant was denied entry into Canada in April 2008.

The FDA report said the shipment "appears to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance, or is otherwise unfit for food in that it appears to contain foreign objects."

Today FDA food safety director David Acheson told ABC News that inspectors did not find salmonella in any peanuts coming in from Canada, but did find bits of metal fragments.

Responding to the AP story, Acheson denied allegations that the FDA had failed to follow up.

"The FDA indeed confirmed that there were metal fragments in there, which is why we understand Canada refused entry," Acheson said. "What that did was to trigger a report back to the state of Georgia, who under FDA contract went into the PCA facility looking for problems that may have led to the introduction of metal fragments into product. They didn't find anything."

The FDA said today that after the shipment was rejected, it was sent back to Peanut Corporation of America, where employees tried unsuccessfully to clean it up.The shipment was destroyed under the eyes of the FDA on Nov. 17, 2008.

Salmonella poisoning in peanuts has been linked to the same Georgia plant. A massive recall of hundreds of items was expanded Wednesday to include every peanut product to come out of the Georgia plant in the last two years.

"I think the revelations have no doubt been alarming," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today. "Whether it was our own regulatory system or a company that repeatedly found salmonella in its own testing and continue to ship out that product is beyond disturbing for millions of parents."

Gibbs said that President Obama hopes to announce his pick for FDA Commissioner in the next few days.

On Friday Acheson also highlighted the complexities of keeping food safe as it travels into, out of and around the country.

"We do not routinely look at returned goods for every possible microbe, agent, chemical problem that could be in there," Acheson said. "There's just hundreds. It would be very resource-intensive and time-intensive. This issue was around metal fragments. And it did trigger an inspection to look for metal fragments and had nothing to do with salmonella."