WEDNESDAY, Jan. 28, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials announced a startling nationwide recall late Wednesday for all peanut products made over the last two years at the Georgia plant involved in the current salmonella outbreak.
The recall was initiated by Peanut Corp. of America, whose facility produced peanut butter and peanut paste that was the source of the sickening of 501 people, and the possible deaths of eight others.
"Today, the firm announced that, due to internal tests indicating salmonella contamination in its products, which had not been disclosed to state or federal regulatory authorities until very recently, the company is expanding its recall of all the peanut products manufactured in its Blakely, Ga., plant since Jan. 1, 2007," Stephen Sundlof, a top official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said during a teleconference Wednesday.
"This is among the largest recalls we have had," he added.
The recall involves all whole peanuts, dry and oil roasted; granulated peanuts; peanut meal; peanut butter, and peanut paste, he said.
Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, also said the agency did not know whether all the recalled products have been consumed or whether they are still in use. "We are trying to find out the scope," he said.
The news followed disclosure by FDA officials Tuesday that Peanut Corp. had distributed questionable peanut butter products in the past from the plant.
That revelation prompted Congressional and Georgia officials on Wednesday to call for a federal probe of possible criminal violations at the plant, the Associated Press reported.
From 2007 into 2008, Peanut Corp. shipped peanut butter that it knew had been contaminated with salmonella, FDA officials and officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday following an inspection report from the plant.
"The FDA team identified 12 instances where the firm, as part of its own internal testing program, identified some type of salmonella and released a product after it was retested," Michael Rogers, director of FDA's division of field investigations in the Office of Regional Operations, said Tuesday.
Inspection reports released Wednesday from FDA investigators at the plant two weeks ago cite a litany of safety and sanitation problems and a trail of products that were sent out after being retested to clear the salmonella contaminants.
The investigation cited roaches, mold and signs of a leaking roof among numerous problems inspectors uncovered.
At Wednesday's teleconference, Rogers elaborated.
"The plant was not in compliance with good manufacturing practices required by the FDA," he said. "Inspection revealed that this firm was shipping adulterated products."
But he added that it is unclear at this point what enforcement action the FDA will take. The first step is to work with the company to fix the problems before making a final determination as to what to do, he said.
Reaction elsewhere was less muted.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees FDA funding, said Wednesday that Peanut Corp.'s actions "can only be described as reprehensible and criminal," according to the AP.
"Not only did this company knowingly sell tainted products, it shopped for a laboratory that would provide the acceptable results they were seeking. This behavior represents the worst of our current food safety regulatory system," DeLauro added.
The American Peanut Council also reacted strongly to the expanded recall.
"Although we support PCA's precautionary move to recall additional products, since the health and safety of the consumer is our highest priority, one thing is certain -- willful neglect of public health and safety cannot be tolerated under any circumstance," Patrick Archer, president of the council, said in a prepared statement.
"This is a clear and unconscionable act by one manufacturer," Archer added. "This act is not by any means representative of the excellent food safety practices and procedures of the U.S. peanut industry."
Peanut Corp., in a statement released Wednesday night, expressed regret "that these circumstances are causing distress to our consumers, our customers and our employees."
But, the statement added, "PCA categorically denies allegations that the company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products."
The Lynchburg-Va.-based company vowed to "remain vigilant to the recall process until we know all potentially harmful products have been pulled from store shelves and families have all the necessary information to remove recalled products from their homes."
At a teleconference Tuesday, FDA officials said that four strains of salmonella have now been linked to the Georgia plant in the current outbreak.
Only one strain, salmonella Typhimurium, was to blame for the wide-spread illnesses that started in September.
That strain was found in tubs of peanut butter in Minnesota and Connecticut and in peanut butter crackers in Canada, according to Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC's division of foodborne, bacterial and mycotic diseases in the National Center for Zoonotic Vectorborne and Enteric Diseases.
But a second strain of salmonella was found in cracks in the floor of the plant, a third in a container of peanut butter from the plant, and a fourth strain was found in peanut butter in the plant, Tauxe said. No cases of salmonella infection have resulted from the latter three strains, Tauxe added.
While jars of peanut butter on store shelves appear to be safe, hundreds of peanut butter and peanut paste products from scores of companies have been recalled so far.
The FDA Web site lists these recalled products.
Meanwhile, health officials on Tuesday reported that the outbreak might be winding down, with the number of new cases declining during the past two weeks.
Because most of the tainted products went to institutions like schools, Tauxe said more than half the victims have been children.
For more on the outbreak, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.