updated 2/6/2009 4:02:19 PM ET 2009-02-06T21:02:19

A Georgia peanut plant at the center of a salmonella outbreak earlier had potentially exposed its products to insecticides, one of several violations uncovered in 2001 during the last visit federal inspectors made before the current food-poisoning scare.

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Workers at the Peanut Corp. of America’s plant used an insecticide fogger in food processing areas and didn’t wash the exposed equipment, Food and Drug Administration inspectors wrote in a 2001 reported obtained by The Associated Press. They also found dirty duct tape wrapped on broken equipment, dead insects around peanuts and gaps in doors where rodents could enter the plant.

FDA inspectors did not find evidence of insecticides in peanuts at the plant during that earlier visit. Company officials told them the fogger was last used two weeks earlier, according to the inspection report.

Criminal investigation under way
Some of those 2001 findings by the FDA are similar to problems inspectors discovered during a visit to the plant last month after salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut butter were linked to at least eight deaths and 575 illnesses in 43 states. The FDA’s recent inspection was the first time federal officials visited the plant since their 2001 report.

Peanut Corp. officials have denied any wrongdoing in the salmonella outbreak. A criminal investigation is under way.

The Agriculture Department abruptly suspended all business with the company Thursday. The USDA shipped some of the company’s potentially contaminated peanut butter and peanuts to eight states, including school lunch programs in California, Minnesota and Idaho in 2007. None of the states reported illnesses as a result of people eating the products, agency officials said.

The USDA was one of Peanut Corp.’s two biggest clients in 2001 when inspectors found the insecticide problem. USDA officials also regularly visited the plant, including in recent years. But that agency is not trained to perform food safety inspections, USDA spokesman Jerry Redding said.

The USDA visits to the plant were made by “contract auditors” who are “number crunchers,” Redding said, who know nothing about peanuts. They only visited to review records, he said.

Parnell told FDA inspectors in 2001 that USDA officials knew about the insecticide fogger and approved use of the duct tape on broken equipment, the FDA inspection report says.

Misuse of insecticide foggers
The insecticide fogger discovered by inspectors noted on its labels that any exposed equipment should be thoroughly washed after use. Plant workers covered some areas, and told inspectors that no peanuts were in any equipment when the foggers were used at night.

The plant manager told inspectors during their visit that workers didn’t clean the exposed areas and didn’t realize the insecticide couldn’t be used around food.

Plant owner Stewart Parnell promised FDA inspectors at the time that he would correct the problems because he “wanted to assure us that he wanted his firm to be in compliance,” FDA inspectors wrote.

Parnell told inspectors that the insecticide’s “labeling had been changed and they had not been aware of the change.” the FDA report states.

Parnell and the plant manager told inspectors the company was assured by the insecticide supplier that the chemical was safe for use in food areas.

Parnell also promised to remove the duct tape filled with dirt and residue, and repair the broken equipment, the FDA report states.

Inspectors also found dead beetles and insect webs around peanuts, the report states. Several gaps along doors as long as seven feet and large enough for rodents also were found.

FDA officials said Friday the company was allowed in 2001 to fix the problems on its own because the inspection showed no evidence that finished products were being contaminated.

Michael Rogers, FDA’s head of field investigations, said the problems with pesticides and duct tape on equipment do not appear to have surfaced again in inspections performed by Georgia inspectors. That indicates they were corrected, he said.

“In 2001, FDA classified the inspection as ’voluntary action indicated,’ “ Rogers said. “That is a classification reserved for firms that have deviations noted by investigators, but there is no evidence of direct contamination of finished products. In these cases, firms are allowed to voluntarily correct the problems.”

Rogers said the FDA is researching to see if any other official actions were taken after the 2001 inspection.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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