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Peanut firm in salmonella scare closes Va. plant

/ Source: The Associated Press

The peanut processor at the heart of the national salmonella outbreak has shut down the last of its plants, which was the only one that hasn’t been linked to possible contamination, an attorney for the company said Tuesday.

Tidewater Blanching in southeastern Virginia closed on Friday, the same day that Lynchburg-based Peanut Corp. of America filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The company’s bankruptcy attorney, Andrew Goldstein of Roanoke, said Tuesday that the Suffolk plant had about 13 workers when it closed.

The company’s plant in Blakely, Ga., closed in January after its peanut butter and other products were found to be the source of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 600 people and been linked to nine deaths. A second plant in Plainview, Texas, was closed last week after preliminary tests showed possible salmonella contamination.

The Virginia plant’s only operation was blanching, in which the red skins are removed from peanuts before they are sent elsewhere for further processing, said Elaine Lidholm, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

State inspectors had found minor problems at the Suffolk plant in 2007 and 2008, including flaking paint and evidence of rodents, Lidholm said.

The problems were classified by the state as minor, and the inspection reports indicated that the plant volunteered to fix the problems. The plant normally was inspected once a year, Lidholm said, but in 2007 and 2008 inspectors returned a second time to see that problems had been corrected.

The second 2008 inspection found two dead mice in traps in a warehouse, as well as an open door and a 32-inch-wide gap in strip curtains “completely exposed to the entrance of pests,” according to a report last October by inspector R.K. Jordan.

The report also noted mold was found on the outside of 43 totes of blanched peanuts, each weighing 2,000 pounds. Nuts in that warehouse were destined for oil stock, wild animal feed or destruction, the report said, and would be screened for mold in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grading process.

Lidholm said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a team to inspect the plant last month, after the salmonella outbreak was traced to the Georgia plant. Its report was not yet available.

Peanut Corp. has leased the building where the Suffolk plant operated since 2001, according to city officials. Lidholm said the plant was shut down for about a year after a fire in 2002.