The Georgia peanut processing plant at the epicenter of a national salmonella outbreak had a history of problems it failed to correct, federal health officials said Tuesday.
Officials said the Peanut Corp. of America plant had repeatedly shipped products that the company's own initial tests found to be positive for salmonella. Peanut Corp. also failed to take standard steps to prevent contamination within the facility, officials said. Indeed, investigators have identified four different strains of salmonella thus far.
"There is certainly a salmonella problem in the plant," said Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The latest findings also renewed concerns about federal inspections of food facilities, which are few and far between. In this case, the Food and Drug Administration relied on Georgia authorities to inspect the Blakely, Ga., plant. But state inspectors did not uncover what now appears to have been a festering problem.
Meanwhile, the recalls list has grown to more 390 products, from ice cream to dog biscuits. More than 500 people have gotten sick, and the outbreak may have contributed to eight deaths.
A senior FDA investigator said the company's own internal testing detected salmonella on at least 12 occasions in 2007 and 2008. But the firm shipped the questionable products after retesting them.
"The inspection revealed that the firm's internal testing program identified salmonella," said Michael Rogers, director of FDA's division of field investigations. "In some cases ... a subsequent lab was used that reached a negative conclusion."
The revelation was significant, Rogers said, because "at the point in which salmonella was identified, it shouldn't be there."
Rogers said Peanut Corp. did not do enough to prevent cross-contamination inside the plant. Roasting is supposed to kill any salmonella in peanuts. But they can become contaminated again if they come in contact with equipment used to handle raw peanuts.
Health officials said they have now identified four types of salmonella in connection with the investigation.
Salmonella Typhimurium is the strain that caused the illnesses. Two other strains were found on the floor of the facility and a third in a container of peanut butter from the plant.
Peanut Corp. had no initial response.
Salmonella is the most common source of food poisoning in the United States. It causes diarrhea, cramping and fever. About one out of every five patients who got sick in the current outbreak have had to be hospitalized. The elderly and the very young are especially vulnerable.