The US food plant responsible for a widespread food poisoning outbreak knowingly shipped contaminated peanut butter and had mold growing on its ceilings and walls, US health officials said Wednesday.
The salmonella outbreak took place between September 1 and January 9, with 501 people infected in 43 states and one more person reported ill in Canada, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which is collaborating with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the investigation.
The CDC said salmonella infection may have contributed to eight deaths.
The FDA determined that people were infected or died after eating food products containing peanut butter produced by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) in Blakely, Georgia.
"PCA distributed potentially contaminated product to more than 70 consignee firms, for use as an ingredient in hundreds of different products, such as cookies, crackers, cereal, candy and ice cream," the FDA said on its website.
An FDA inspection report released Wednesday found 12 instances between June 2007 and September 2008 where the firm's own testing revealed that its products were contaminated by salmonella and the PCA nonetheless shipped the product.
Mold was found growing on the ceilings and walls of the PCA's cooler where finished food products were stored.
The FDA also observed salmonella strains close to totes and pallets of finished product. Open gaps up to 2.5 feet (76 centimeters) long were reported on the plant's ceilings.
PCA's cleaning and sanitization came under fire, with reported product residue, build-up of powdery ingredients and roaches present throughout the plant.
The American Peanut Council expressed "shock and dismay" at the FDA report that PCA knowingly shipped contaminated products.
"The findings of the FDA report can only be seen as a clear and unconscionable action of one irresponsible manufacturer," said Patrick Archer, the trade association's president. "This apparent failure to follow food safety regulations must be condemned in the strongest possible terms."
Companies that received PCA products have issued voluntary recalls of the items.
"Peanut butter and peanut butter paste was not sold directly to consumers but was distributed to institutions, food service providers, food manufacturers and distributors in many states and countries," the CDC said.
PCA recalled its peanut butter products in mid-January in 24 US states, the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and overseas in Haiti and South Korea.
People infected with salmonella usually develop diarrhea, fever and cramping, and illness lasts an average of four to seven days. The CDC said an estimated 1.4 million people are infected by salmonella each year in the United States and about 400 people die from infection.
The family of a 72-year-old Minnesota woman who may have died from salmonella poisoning has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against PCA. Other lawsuits are also being filed against the firm.