The salmonella outbreak which occurred at the Georgia peanut plant Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) has caused eight deaths and sickened almost 19,000 people in 43 states. While the company, based in Lynchburg, Va., is under criminal investigation, the outbreak identifies a broader problem with thestate and federal regulatory system currently in place.
The plant had a number of health and safety issues, which would have been enough to alert inspectors to problems. Those issues included raw peanuts being stored next to the finished peanut butter, the roaster not being calibrated to kill deadly germs, workers donning their uniforms at home, potentially bringing contaminants into the plant, and rodents in the plant. The roof of the Georgia plant also leaked, giving salmonella water in which to thrive.
In addition to the obvious physical conditions of the plant, PCA’s own tests had found salmonella 12 times since 2007. The FDA accused the company of repeatedly shipping peanut butter and other products right after discovering salmonella; the agency had previously stated that PCA held the shipments until a second test for salmonella came back negative.
State and federal inspectors do not require the peanut industry to report salmonella contaminations to the public or the government.
Georgia was responsible for inspecting the plant, however state inspectors said their duties were hampered by budget cuts and rising needs. The state ran tests for salmonella on three samples from the plant in 2007, and none in 2006 or 2008. The last state inspection in October 2008 found two problems: mildew and dust in a storage room and the reuse of shipping bags.
While state inspectors did not find many problems, federal investigators last month found many, including salmonella living on the plant floors. A federal report shows that plant managers had not decontaminated the peanut butter processing line after detecting salmonella.
Georgia regulators said they will try to change state laws to require more disclosure of food safety tests. But Dr. Steven M. Solomon, an official in the federal agency’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, said such disclosures may be a "double-edged sword" that might prevent companies from testing in the first place.
Some people are questioning why stricter regulations weren’t put in place after a salmonella outbreak in ConAgra Foods’ Peter Pan peanut butter in 2007. A whistleblower reported that the company had found salmonella in its peanut butter produced at its plant in Sylvester, Ga. back in 2004, but the FDA did not pursue records after the plant refused to release the tests. After hundreds of people were sickened three years later, the FDA finally demanded the records. ConAgra spent $33 million to clean and improve its Georgia plant conditions and implement 80 rules employees must follow before beginning work. It has not, however, stated that it would notify the FDA if it found salmonella again.
David Marshall’s mother was one of those sickened by Peter Pan peanut butter back in 2007, and his wife testified before Congress. After hearing a congresswoman recently state that laws need to be enacted to prevent another salmonella outbreak, he thought "You idiot. What have you all been doing? The law should have been enacted years ago, and this made us wonder, what does the FDA even do?"