The government has opened a criminal investigation into the Georgia peanut-processing plant at the center of the national salmonella outbreak, federal officials said Friday.
Stephen Sundlof, head of the Food and Drug Administration's food safety center, said the Justice Department will join FDA investigators in looking into possible criminal violations. The Peanut Corp. of America plant shipped allegedly tainted products to dozens of other food companies.
"It is an open investigation at this time," said Sundlof. "We can't really talk much about the investigation itself."
The family that runs Peanut Corp., who are accused of allowing a factory in Georgia to become filthy and contaminated with mold and roaches, denies the FDA accusations. Beth Falwell, the daughter of Peanut Corp.'s founder defended her family and said that the FDA's report was flawed and exagerrated, according to MSNBC.
As to accusations that the company lab-shopped health samples until they came back clean, Falwell begged technical innocence. Referring to the lack of prohibition against lab-shopping, Falwell said “Right now, it’s not a law. Maybe it should be, but he [the company's president] didn’t break any laws.” That should go over great in any civil suit that's sure to surface.
More than 500 people have been sickened as a result of the outbreak, and at least eight may have died because of salmonella infections. More than 430 products have been pulled off the shelves in a recall that reaches to Canada and Europe.
In another development Friday, officials urged consumers to be cautious about "boutique" brands of peanut butter, which had not previously figured in the recall.
Although national brands of peanut butter are unaffected, some smaller companies may have received peanuts from the processing plant in Blakely, Ga., the FDA said.
Meanwhile, the White House pledged stricter oversight of food safety.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday that President Barack Obama plans to name a new FDA commissioner and other oversight officials in coming days. Gibbs said they will establish a "stricter regulatory structure" to prevent breakdowns in food safety.
"I think the revelations have no doubt been alarming," said Gibbs. That a company which found salmonella in its own testing would continue to ship products "is beyond disturbing for millions of parents," he added.
FDA officials said they last inspected the Blakely facility in 2001, when it wasn't being used to make peanut butter.
It did not get much attention from the federal government again until earlier this year, when a shipment of peanuts from the plant was returned from Canada because it was contaminated with metal fragments. The FDA then asked Georgia authorities to inspect.
But the state inspections did not detect what FDA officials say was a salmonella problem at the plant dating back to at least June of 2007.
The return of the contaminated shipment of peanuts was first reported by the Associated Press.