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Concern Grows Over Deadly Outbreak of Salmonella Poisoning

January 29, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Federal investigators uncovered new details this week about conditions at a Georgia food factory that produced salmonella-tainted peanut products, which have killed eight and sickened hundreds more. Elizabeth Weise of USA Today updates the story.
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MARGARET WARNER: Concern over the deadly nationwide outbreak of salmonella continues to grow. Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration expanded the recall of products from a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Georgia.

It also said the company had knowingly shipped out products that had tested positive for salmonella.

Today, the U.S. Army said it will remove some peanut butter items from its warehouses in Europe.

The outbreak has killed at least eight and sickened another 500 people in 48 states and Canada.

For more on this story, we turn to Elizabeth Weise of USA Today.

And, Elizabeth, welcome. Tell us, first, how big is this recall now? What kinds of products? How many?

ELIZABETH WEISE, USA Today: We are now probably at about the second-largest recall in U.S. history. It’s a little unclear. There was a meat recall a couple of years back that was over 100 million pounds of meat. It’s unclear how much of this product we’ve got out.

But the FDA’s list right now is over 400 items that potentially could include peanuts from the Peanut Corporation plant in Blakely, Georgia. So it’s in — I saw vegan peanut cookies today that it was in. It’s in a teriyaki chicken frozen dinner. It’s in a lot of granola bars, diet bars, little cups of peanut butter, and you get a piece of celery to stick in it.

And, of course, the biggest one is the peanut crackers. It seems that we had two large recalls of peanut crackers early on.

Samples sent to different labs

Elizabeth Weise
USA Today
And when I asked the FDA straight out, well, is it, in fact, illegal to do this lab shopping? They said, well, that would be the question.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the big news yesterday was, of course, the FDA said that this company knowingly shipped some of this stuff out after the batches had tested positive for salmonella. How could that happen? What happened?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, that's a good question. Looking at the FDA report, which they released yesterday, what they found was, was that the Peanut Corporation of America on 12 different occasions had gone in, tested peanut product for salmonella, gotten back a positive result, and then took another sample, sent it to a different lab, got a negative result, and then said, "OK, we're fine to ship."

MARGARET WARNER: Is that allowed?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Generally speaking -- well, everybody that I talked to in the industry says, no, you'd never do that in a million years. What the FDA says is, salmonella in peanut butter or in a peanut product is an adulterant and it is illegal to ship adulterated food.

The question is, is it illegal -- I mean, it's possible that they were just concerned that, perhaps, the first lab got it wrong and they wanted a second test. And when I asked the FDA straight out, well, is it, in fact, illegal to do this lab shopping? They said, well, that would be the question.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what does the company say publicly?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Publicly, the company has issued a statement saying that they are very concerned about this. They're working in every way possible with the FDA. They perhaps feel that some of the FDA's conclusions might have been a little incorrect, but they're not really going into detail.

Plant last inspected in 2001

Elizabeth Weise
USA Today
Over the last 10 years, they've seen a fairly significant drop in the number of inspections they can do. So it's not odd at all that FDA didn't do the inspections, and Georgia just didn't have the staff to do really thorough inspections frequently.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, we learned today also that the FDA had not inspected this plant since 2001. How was that?

ELIZABETH WEISE: And that's perfectly normal. The FDA just does not have the staff to have people going out and inspecting plants across the country, food plants making products that the FDA's in charge of.

Generally speaking, the way that works is it's something that the states do. And Georgia -- we've talked to people at the Department of Agriculture in Georgia -- Georgia's had to cut down on the number of inspectors and the number of inspections because they just haven't had as much money.

Over the last 10 years, they've seen a fairly significant drop in the number of inspections they can do. So it's not odd at all that FDA didn't do the inspections, and Georgia just didn't have the staff to do really thorough inspections frequently.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the FDA had subcontracted the job to Georgia, is that right? Now, the FDA, of course, did go in this month and, I gather from yesterday's report, they found conditions that would help explain how maybe contamination occurred?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Right. The biggest things that they found were, there was a gap at a ceiling near an intake vent for the air conditioning system. There were several instances where they could see that water had seeped in.

And there was a recall of peanut butter a couple of years back. And in that instance, at the plant, water from outside had been able to seep into the plant. And any time you've got standing water or water coming in, you have to be concerned, one, about bird droppings somehow getting in that water and getting in, because birds carry salmonella, or, if there was salmonella in the plant, that water could have caused it to bloom and then the bacteria to start growing again. That gets into the product, and that's how it is spread.

FDA may be understaffed

Elizabeth Weise
USA Today
I mean, remember, USDA, for example, by law has to have an inspector in every plant that's doing meat production in this country at any hour that they're open.

MARGARET WARNER: And you cover food safety, when you said the FDA really doesn't have the manpower to go out and inspect all these plants. So how widespread do you think conditions like this are? I mean, do you have any -- does the FDA have a handle on that?

ELIZABETH WEISE: I don't think the FDA does. I mean, remember, USDA, for example, by law has to have an inspector in every plant that's doing meat production in this country at any hour that they're open. FDA doesn't have that stipulation, and they just don't have the staff.

I can tell you that a lot of the businesses that we're talking to now are starting to talk about third-party auditing. I mean, several of them do that already, but I think it's going to be a bigger issue, because companies don't want to be blindsided like this.

Consumers should check FDA site

Elizabeth Weise
USA Today
The best thing you can do is go to the FDA Web site, if you just go to www.FDA.gov. And they've put up a fairly nice, searchable site where you can type in anything you have that might contain peanut products and find out if it's been recalled.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Elizabeth, what's a consumer to do?

ELIZABETH WEISE: The best thing you can do is go to the FDA Web site, if you just go to www.FDA.gov. And they've put up a fairly nice, searchable site where you can type in anything you have that might contain peanut products and find out if it's been recalled.

If you don't have access to the Internet, the CDC has a very nice system where you can just call. It's 1-800-CDC-INFO. And they'll actually -- you tell them what you've got on your cupboard shelf, and they'll tell you whether or not it's been recalled.

The issue is that I think we're going to see more recalls coming in the coming days, because the recall was just expanded yesterday. And so we don't necessarily know.

Now, the thing the CDC is saying is, if you've got something on your shelves that you're concerned about, throw it away. I've talked to people who've had this; you sure don't want to get sick like this, so just throw it out and buy something else.

MARGARET WARNER: Elizabeth Weise of USA Today, thank you.

ELIZABETH WEISE: You're so welcome. Thank you.