FRIDAY, Jan. 30, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. officials have launched a criminal investigation into the salmonella outbreak tied to tainted peanut products that have sickened more than 500 people and may have caused at least eight deaths.
The probe will focus on possible criminal violations at the Georgia processing plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America, which knowingly shipped peanut butter and peanut paste products in the past that had tested positive for salmonella, officials said Friday.
Dr. Stephen Sundlof, head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food safety center, said the Justice Department will head up the investigation, with assistance from the FDA.
"I can confirm to you today that FDA's Office of Criminal Investigation is involved in a Justice Department investigation of PCA," Sundlof said during an afternoon teleconference.
As of Friday, 529 people in 43 states and one person in Canada have been sickened in the outbreak, which has prompted the recall of more than 430 products by 53 companies.
While the rate of new illnesses seems to be declining -- an indication that the outbreak may be winding down -- officials said reports of new cases could be expected to continue for weeks.
The current salmonella outbreak isn't the first time Peanut Corp. has been involved in shipping tainted product, Sundlof said.
Last April, months before the first signs of the salmonella outbreak appeared in the United States, peanuts exported to Canada were found to be tainted. The shipment was refused by a Canadian distributor because "the peanuts had metal fragments in them," Sundlof said.
The products were then returned to the United States and destroyed in November after the FDA rejected as "unacceptable" findings by a private lab hired by Peanut Corp. to analyze the product, Sundlof said.
The criminal investigation also follows disclosure by FDA officials Tuesday that, from 2007 into 2008, the company shipped peanut butter that it knew had been contaminated with salmonella.
"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 cited 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 current outbreak prompted U.S. health officials to announce a startling nationwide recall late Wednesday for all peanut products made over the last two years at the Georgia plant.
The recall involves all whole peanuts, dry and oil roasted; granulated peanuts; peanut meal; peanut butter, and peanut paste, Sundlof said.
At this point, apparently, the only safe peanut butter is in name-brand jars on store shelves. Hundreds of other peanut and peanut paste products have been recalled so far.
Because most of the tainted products went to institutions like schools, more than half the victims have been children, officials said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site lists all the recalled products.