ATLANTA — Private lab tests show there may have been salmonella at a second plant operated by the peanut company at the center of a national outbreak, but the potentially tainted products were not sent to consumers, Texas health officials said Tuesday.
The Peanut Corp. of America plant in Plainview, Texas, had operated unlicensed and uninspected for nearly four years, heightening food safety concerns already swirling around the company. Although no recalls related to the plant were announced Tuesday, federal inspectors have begun looking for any signs of problems similar to those found at company plant in Georgia identified as the source of the salmonella outbreak.
Peanut Corp. temporarily closed the Texas plant Monday night at the request of health officials after tests found “the possible presence of salmonella” in some of its products, the Texas Department of Health said.
The Texas plant produces peanut meal, granulated peanuts and dry roasted peanuts. Texas state health officials said that possibly contaminated peanut meal and granulated peanuts had not been sent to customers. Potentially contaminated dry roasted peanuts were shipped to a distributor, but were caught before reaching the public, state officials said.
The company is being investigated in connection with an outbreak that has sickened 600 people and may have caused at least eight deaths. More than 1,840 possibly contaminated consumer products have been recalled in one in one of the largest product recalls ever.
State inspectors pulled samples from the Texas plant Feb. 4, giving half to Peanut Corp. for independent testing and sending half to a state lab, which is common practice, said Doug McBride, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Peanut Corp. received a “presumptive positive” result from a private lab Monday, which strongly indicates salmonella is present but requires further testing to confirm, McBride said.
The state’s lab results came back negative Tuesday, but McBride said it’s possible for one part of a given lot of product to test positive while another part of the same lot tests negative.
Peanut Corp. closed its plant in Blakely, Ga., last month after federal investigators identified that facility as the source of the salmonella outbreak. Company spokeswoman Amy Rotenberg in an e-mail declined to comment beyond the company’s earlier statement Tuesday that said the plant would voluntarily close while state officials investigated.
The Texas closing came a day after the FBI
The Texas closing came a day after the FBI, which is involved in a criminal investigation into the company, raided the company’s Georgia plant and its headquarters in Lynchburg, Va.
During their investigation at the Georgia plant, Food and Drug Administration inspectors found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other sanitation problems. They also found two strains of salmonella. Though different from the outbreak strain, the discovery of the bacteria at the plant signaled a hole in food safety.
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The FDA said last week the company knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products from the Georgia plant after tests showed the products were contaminated. Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could make it harmful to consumers’ health.
FDA inspectors are back at the Texas plant following the private lab results Monday, said Mike Rogers, head of FDA’s field investigations. The federal inspectors are going back through the plant more thoroughly to determine whether there are problems similar to those discovered at the Georgia plant, he said.
Rogers said no recalls related to the Texas products were yet planned because it doesn’t appear they made it to consumers.
Products with peanuts from the Plainview plant were distributed to a handful of Northern California Whole Foods Market stores but were pulled from shelves Tuesday “in an overabundance of caution,” said Libba Letton, spokeswoman for the Austin-based company. She did not know exactly how many stores were affected.
An Associated Press investigation last week revealed that the Texas plant, which opened in March 2005 and was run by a subsidiary, Plainview Peanut Co., operated uninspected and unlicensed by state health officials until after the company came under investigation last month by the Food and Drug Administration. McBride said state officials did not take samples for salmonella testing during a Jan. 12 visit but that the FDA did take samples at the plant.
The company, which also operates a small plant under the name Tidewater Blanching in Suffolk, Va., sold its peanut butter to institutional clients, such as nursing homes, and its peanut paste to many other companies that used it as an ingredient in products ranging from cookies and ice cream to energy bars and pet treats. While the company initially said its products weren’t sold directly to consumers, it said Sunday that some were sold directly to discount retailers.
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