Peanut Company Closes Second Plant

Peanut company president and victims' families invited to testify Wednesday.

February 10, 2009, 2:39 PM

BLAKELY, Ga., Feb. 10, 2009— -- As people with personal connections to the salmonella outbreak prepared to testify Wednesday morning on Capitol Hill, a flurry of activity continued in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

New developments unfolded this week in a chain of events that has resulted in the removal of 1,845 peanut products from store shelves, following more than 600 illnesses and an estimated eight deaths linked to bad peanuts.

The FBI raided the Peanut Corporation of America's Blakely, Ga., facility Monday as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the peanut recall. The company's subsidiary in Plainview, Texas, today announced it, too, would temporarily close its doors after lab tests detected the possible presence of salmonella.

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

"Unfortunately, we go from disaster to disaster, if you will," Nancy Donley, president of a food safety advocacy group, Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP, told ABC News today. "I don't know how many it's going to take to finally get government to wake up and say, 'This is enough. Enough is enough already.'"

Sources said the FBI raided the Blakely plant looking for quality control records and other documents. Agents want to know who oversaw salmonella testing and who was responsible for shipping out tainted products. Investigators from the criminal division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were in Blakely as well. Authorities also searched the company's home office in Virginia.

In Texas, officials said samples taken last week from the Peanut Corporation of America's Plainview plant are 99 percent positive for salmonella. The tainted products did not make it to consumers. The FDA has now collected 50 additional samples for testing and is not ruling out another recall.

At the Georgia plant today, a few former workers were meeting with the company's attorney, who wasn't talking.

Former workers were also increasingly reluctant to talk. One employee, who asked not to be identified, told ABC News that workers had no idea the company had a dozen positive salmonella tests but shipped out peanut butter and nuts, anyway.

A woman who had been hired to clean the plant, also wanting to remain anonymous, said the facility was filthy.

Peanut Co. President and Plant Manager Invited to Testify

The public could hear from the president of the peanut company and the plant manager at the heart of the salmonella outbreak as early as Wednesday at the House Energy and Commerce panel's subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

If Stewart Parnell, president of Peanut Corporation of America, indeed appears before lawmakers, it would be the first time he has spoken publicly since the problems with the company began.

The Peanut Corporation of America's third plant, located in Suffolk, Va., was inspected by the FDA Jan 26. The FDA took samples there that came back negative.

The state of Georgia, on behalf of the FDA, inspected the Blakely plant 10 times during the past three years. It did find problems with sanitation and procedures to prevent contamination, but inspectors found those problems to be routine and supervisors promised to fix them.

In 2007, Georgia also tested three products for salmonella and all were negative. The plant never told state officials they had already had five positive tests that year. It wasn't required to report that information.

"They're not held to any standards," Donley said. "They're, basically, just on their own and just doing willy-nilly what they want to do, so that's a problem there."

Blakely Mayor Ric Hall said food safety is based largely on trust that companies will do what they're supposed to do. Hall said he was "shocked" that the company may have shipped out tainted products.

Meantime, lawmakers in Washington and families nationwide are eager for answers.

"You can't have any other feeling but being angry because it shouldn't have happened," Ginger Lorentz recently told ABC Minneapolis affiliate KSTP.

Lorentz' mother Shirley Mae Almer, 72, of Perham, Minn., died just before Christmas after falling ill from salmonella in a Minnesota nursing home. Her family has since filed a lawsuit against the Peanut Corporation of America.

"She died because every morning she liked to have toast with peanut butter," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said last week at a Senate hearing.

FDA food safety director Stephen Sundlof, in prepared testimony, told lawmakers for the Senate panel that the agency "is working hard to ensure the safety of food, in collaboration with its federal, state, local, and international food safety partners, and with industry, consumers, and academia. Although the salmonella typhimurium food borne illness outbreak underscores the challenges we face, the American food supply continues to be among the safest in the world. Food safety is a priority for the new administration."

"Consumers just need to be, frankly, yelling and screaming, to say, 'Hey, make it safer," Donley said. "It shouldn't be up to us to have to find it and monitor our kitchens and cupboards and pantries and freezers to make sure that we're not harboring some sort of unsafe food."

ABC News' Brian Hartman and Matt Hosford contributed to this story.

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