Salmonella-Linked Peanut Firm Files For Bankruptcy

The peanut company at the center of a nationwide salmonella outbreak filed Friday for bankruptcy protection.

On Thursday, Texas health officials ordered the Peanut Corp. of America's plant in Plainview to close. The officials also ordered a recall of all products ever produced at the Texas processing plant after finding filthy conditions.

Plant Conditions

An in-depth inspection found disturbing conditions at the Texas plant. Health officials found dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers in a crawl space.

Doug McBride with the Texas Department of State Health Services says the plant's ventilation system was causing problems.

"We also discovered an air-handling system that was not completely sealed and was pulling debris from the infested crawl space into production areas of the plant," McBride says.

The Texas facility, which opened in March 2005, came under scrutiny after the company's Georgia plant was linked to the recent salmonella outbreak. After filing for bankruptcy Friday, the company's attorney said the filing was regrettable, but inevitable.

Among the problems: The company's Texas plant never applied for a license and so had never been inspected by the state until last month. There are 42 inspectors and 21,000 food manufacturers in Texas, McBride says. He says that makes it tough to find those who don't comply.

"It's a big state. We don't have time to be detectives a lot of times," McBride says, "The burden is on the company to get in compliance with any local, state and federal regulations."

Massive Recall

Now the Texas plant that distributed roasted peanuts, peanut meal and granulated peanuts must begin a recall of all products ever produced there. The volume is unknown, but McBride says the plant sold products to approximately 100 manufacturers.

Some 2,000 products linked to the Georgia plant have already been recalled. This second recall will take some time.

"They just have to first find all the people that the company sold to," says Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union. "Then you go to those companies and then you find all the folks that those companies sold to and on down the line."

The potential number of products in the latest recall is very large, Hansen says. He is also concerned about the Peanut Corp. of America's Virginia plant.

Warning For Consumers

In the past, state inspectors found mouse droppings and a live bird in the warehouse. The Food and Drug Administration inspected that plant last month but found no violations. Hansen says consumers must pay attention to what they eat.

"They should be very worried," Hansen says. "They should basically avoid peanut butter products unless they know they do not come from a potentially contaminated source."

He also stresses that the recall does not affect national peanut butter brands in jars. A Harvard survey released Friday shows that though most consumers know about the outbreak, most do not know which products are involved in the recall.

Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, says most companies do not operate the way the Peanut Corp. of America did. He says more stringent efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments made it possible to track the source of the salmonella contamination.

"The surveillance system that is in place now for detecting food-borne outbreaks has been evolving, and it's now gotten so good that these outbreaks, they're now being detected," Doyle says.

Still, Doyle says the incident highlights what he calls "gaping holes" in the country's food-safety net.

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