By Reporters
msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 1/30/2009 6:44:01 PM ET 2009-01-30T23:44:01

The family in charge of the company that shipped salmonella-contaminated peanut products blamed for sickening hundreds of people claims that reports of filthy condition at the company’s shuttered Georgia plant are “exaggerated” and insists that the company broke no laws.

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The Food and Drug Administration alleges that Peanut Corp. of America knowingly distributed peanut products from its plant in Blakely, Ga., that had tested positive for salmonella at least 12 times over the past two years. The company had the products retested until new results came back negative, the agency said, a practice known as “lab shopping.”

The FDA also said its inspectors found mold, a leaking roof and other sanitary problems at the plant, which it ordered shut down.

PCA makes just 1 percent of the peanut products sold in the United States, but those products are ingredients in hundreds of other foods, from ice cream to Asian-style sauces to dog biscuits.

In addition to sickening hundreds of people, the shipments of peanut butter, peanut paste and other goods from the plant have triggered a federal criminal investigation , a congressional inquiry and the recall of hundreds of food products around the world.

In an interview Thursday, Beth Falwell, the sister of PCA President Stewart Parnell and daughter of PCA’s founder, vigorously defended the company, saying the FDA’s report was flawed and “exaggerated.”

Falwell denied that company engaged in “lab shopping” and insisted that company officials would never knowingly distribute contaminated products. Major customers, including Kellogg’s Co., routinely send their own inspectors to PCA’s plants, she said, and those companies would not have continued to do business with PCA if they had found major problems.

Acknowledging that the FDA may have found roaches at the Blakely plant, she added, “It’s a food manufacturing plant, you know? I’m saying it’s exaggerated.”

Falwell, her voice quivering with emotion, asked for patience while the investigations run the course. And she pleaded for the public to withhold judgment over Parnell’s leadership until all the facts come out.

Noting that food producers in most states are not required to alert health regulators if internal tests show possible contamination at their plants, Falwell said, “Right now, it’s not a law. Maybe it should be, but he didn’t break any laws.”

Mollie Halpern is a reporter for NBC station WSLS in Roanoke, Va. Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com.

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