updated 1/28/2009 2:17:38 PM ET 2009-01-28T19:17:38

Senior congressional and state officials called Wednesday for a federal probe of possible criminal violations at a Georgia peanut processing plant linked to the nationwide salmonella outbreak.

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Over the last two years, Peanut Corp. of America found salmonella in a dozen internal tests of its products, but shipped them anyway after getting new tests. The Food and Drug Administration says the company did not initially disclose that to investigators trying to solve the current salmonella outbreak.

The company’s actions “can only be described as reprehensible and criminal,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who oversees FDA funding. “Not only did this company knowingly sell tainted products, it shopped for a laboratory that would provide the acceptable results they were seeking. This behavior represents the worst of our current food safety regulatory system.”

In Georgia, the state’s top agriculture official joined DeLauro in asking the Justice Department to determine if the case warrants criminal prosecution.

“They tried to hide it so they could sell it,” said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. “Now they’ve caused a mammoth problem that could destroy their company — and it could destroy the peanut industry.”

Rogue operator
There was no immediate response from Peanut Corp., which owns the Blakely, Ga., processing plant at the center of the investigation. The company has previously said it fully cooperated with the salmonella investigation.

More than 500 people have gotten sick in the outbreak, which is continuing, and has been linked to at least eight deaths. More than 390 products containing peanut butter or peanut paste have been recalled. They range from Asian-style cooking sauces, to ice cream, to dog treats. However, major national brands of peanut butter are not affected.

SalmonellaThe peanut industry also condemned the company, portraying it as a rogue operator.

The FDA’s findings “can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer, which stands alone in an industry that strives to follow the most stringent food safety standards,” Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, said in a statement.

Irvin, the Georgia agriculture official, said he was outraged by the company’s actions and said a state criminal probe was possible. He would not, however, specify which Georgia laws the company may have violated for fear it would help the company start planning its defense.

“We’re still trying to see exactly what our options are,” said Oscar Garrison, Georgia’s assistant agriculture commissioner, who oversees the consumer protection division. “A lot of questions have to be answered.”

Meanwhile, state lawmakers were drafting a plan to require food makers to report the results of internal inspections to state officials, something the peanut plant in Blakely wasn’t required to do.

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