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The federal government begins a criminal investigation, more products are recalled, companies unaffected by recall rush to reassure consumers, another lawsuit is filed.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Justice Department have launched a criminal probe into the actions of the Peanut Corp. of America, which they shipped products 12 times in 2007 and 2008 that were contaminated with salmonella, according to published reports. News of the investigation came after several members of Congress called for such an action.
FDA has released results of its recent inspections, which it made after it had traced the outbreak to a PCA facility in Blakely, Ga. Federal investigators documented unsanitary conditions, including mold growing on a ceiling, rainwater leaking into the production area from skylights, gaps in the building where rodents could enter, dead roaches and inadequate ventilation, The Washington Post reported.
As a result of its inspections, FDA has asked retailers, manufacturers and consumers to discard every product made in the last two years from peanuts processed by the Blakely plant.
The foodborne illness outbreak has now sickened 529 people and is linked to eight deaths. Although cases are still being reported to federal health officials, “the number of new cases has decreased modestly,” Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The New York Times.
To help consumers get a handle on which food products have been recalled, FDA has created a frequently updated searchable database at http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/peanutbutterrecall/index.cfm. The database is sorted by product category, or it can be searched by brand name, UPC code, product description or any combination of brand, UPC code and description. People without Internet access can get the same information by calling FDA's information line at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or CDC's information line at 1-800-CDC-INFO. The agency advised consumers that if they came across a product that wasn't in the list of recalled products, they could check the company's Web site or call the toll-free number listed on most packaging, although it warned that such information was unverified by FDA.
FDA also reiterated that major national brands of jarred peanut butter sold in grocery stores are unaffected by the PCA recall, which is one of the largest in history, involving over 400 products and now encompassing all peanut products manufactured by the Blakely plant since Jan., 1 2007.
Among the food companies to issue or expands recalls in the past week for products containing peanut products from PCA are Kellogg; Hershey Import Co., which manufactures snacks under such brands as Full Circle and Nature’s Promise; Unilever; and Eillien's Candies, Inc.
Retailers that have issued recalls of affected private label product in the same time period include Save-A-Lot; ShopRite and PriceRite; Meijer; Redner's Markets Inc.; Stop & Shop, Giant Food, LLC, and Martin's Food Markets; Kroger; Publix; Supervalu; Stew Leonard's; Wegmans; and Walgreens.
Under the circumstances, companies that are unaffected by the recall have been eager to affirm the safety of their products. Among those to do so are the Hershey Co.; Mars Snackfood US; Lance, Inc., a manufacturer of peanut butter sandwich crackers, peanuts and peanut bars; and ConAgra Foods, Inc., the maker of Peter Pan brand peanut butter.
In other developments, Seattle-based foodborne illness law firm Marler Clark filed a second lawsuit related to the outbreak. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of California on behalf of the Trone family of Crescent City, Calif., alleges that 3-year-old Bryson Trone fell ill and required hospitalization after eating peanut butter cracker sandwiches made with peanut butter manufactured by PCA. The first Marler Clark suit was filed on behalf of a Vermont couple, Gabrielle and Daryl Meunier, whose 7-year-old son, Christopher, similarly became sick and had to be hospitalized after eating Keebler Cheese & Peanut Butter Sandwich crackers. Additionally, a wrongful death suit has been filed by Minneapolis-based national food safety law firm Pritzker | Olsen, P.A., alleging that Shirley Mae Almer, a 72-year-old Minnesota woman, died as "a direct result of" eating peanut butter delivered to the nursing home in Brainerd, Minn. where she was temporarily staying.