In the day before Congressional Hearings, Elizabeth Williamson of the Washington Post Staff wrote that the Food and Drug Administration has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant. Perhaps as concerning is that ConAgra knew of the Salmonella contamination as well and continued to produce peanut butter.
It will be interesting to see what ConAgra and FDA officials have to say for themselves. Ms. Williamson’s article is below in part.
In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up.
A salmonella outbreak that began last August and was traced to the plant’s Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter brands sickened more than 400 people in 44 states. The likely cause, ConAgra said, was moisture from a roof leak and a malfunctioning sprinkler system that activated dormant salmonella. The plant has since been closed.
The 2005 report shows that FDA inspectors were looking into "an alleged episode of positive findings of salmonella in peanut butter in October of 2004 that was related to new equipment and that the firm didn’t react to, . . . insects in some equipment, water leaking onto product, and inability to track some product."
During the inspection, the report says, ConAgra admitted it had destroyed some product in October 2004 but would not say why.
"They asked for some of our documentation and we made the request to them that they put it in writing due to concerns about proprietary information," ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said last week. "We did not receive a written request, . . . they filed the report and that was that."
Until February of this year. That’s when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the FDA of a spike in salmonella cases in states near the ConAgra plant. The agencies contacted the company, which initiated a recall and shut the plant for upgrades.
Brackett said that if the FDA inspector had seen anything truly dangerous the agency would have taken further action. But, he said, the agency cannot force a disclosure, a recall or a plant closure except in extreme circumstances, such as finding a hazardous batch of product.
The problem in 2005, he added, "doesn’t necessarily connect to the salmonella outbreak right now. It’s not unusual to have it in raw agricultural commodities."