Tainted Peanuts Distributed, And They Knew

The Food and Drug Administration is tasked with protecting the safety of the American people by ensuring the quality and efficiency of drugs, biological and medical devices, cosmetics, and perhaps most importantly, our food supply. It does this through offices throughout the country where they perform inspections and respond to complaints.

However, the FDA lacks the resources to regularly inspect food plants. Typically, the organization will send inspectors to plants only every five or ten years. Between FDA inspections, state health inspectors do their best to pick up the responsibility of protecting consumers.

The Peanut Corp. of America (PCA), received acceptable marks on the 2006, 2007 and 2008 inspections of their Blakely, Georgia plant.

Yet in December of 2008, Shirley Almer, a seventy-two year old cancer survivor from Minnesota died of salmonella poisoning. The grandmother who had survived lung cancer and a brain tumor was killed by contaminated peanut butter.

Two months later, an Oregon three year old named Jacob Hurley began suffering from vomiting and bloody diarrhea. His pediatrician encouraged his parents to try to get him to eat again. The child’s parents tried to tempt him with his favorite food: Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter. Jacob did not recover, because without realizing it, his parents were feeding him more of the source of his problems. After being notified, the Oregon Office of Disease Prevention and Epidemiology tested the Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter, and found three out of six of the packets tainted with salmonella.

Jacob Hurley took eleven days to recover.

These two examples are among over 700 cases of salmonella, at least 9 of which proved fatal, which were traced back to contaminated peanuts from PCA’s Georgia plant. When investigators finally found the plant, they discovered unsanitary conditions, including cockroaches, leaky roofs, mold and machinery held together by duct tape. This plant, prior to its shut down, had processed 35 million pounds of peanuts a year.

The situation goes from tragic to horrifying, however. As investigations continued, the FDA found that PCA executives knew of the contamination. The PCA’s own internal testing had found the presence of salmonella on twelve separate occasions. Despite knowing this, PCA’s decision was to distribute the peanuts and approach another lab to conduct their internal health audits. This new lab gave plants a month’s advance warning of inspections, and awarded “superior” or excellent ratings to 98 percent of its clients.

Investigators later identified yet another problem plant, this one in Plainview, Texas. Conditions at the Texas plant included rodents and rodent excrement, as well as bird feathers found in a crawl space from which the ventilation system pulled air. Samples from this plant also tested positive for salmonella, and the PCA was forced to shut down this plant as well.

It may seem impossible and frightening that for two years, from 2006 to 2008, a company was able to distribute dangerously contaminated food – peanuts which ended up in numerous diverse products. Oscar Garrison, Georgia’s assistant agricultural commissioner, defended the state’s work, saying that it’s difficult for health inspectors to find problems when a company is determined to break the law.