WASHINGTON — Peanut Corporation of America sold 32 truckloads of roasted peanuts and peanut butter to the federal government for a free lunch program for poor children even as the company's internal tests showed that its products were contaminated with salmonella bacteria.
On Thursday, the Department of Agriculture abruptly suspended its contract with the company, which is at the center of an ongoing salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people, sickened 575 more and triggered one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
Depending on how recalls are measured, few others come close to the current one of peanut products. If counted by the number of products, more than 1,313 had been recalled as of Thursday. The closest similarity is the 1,177 pet food products recalled in 2007 after melamine was discovered in some ingredients.
The fact that a federal agency that shares responsibility for keeping food safe was among the thousands of customers who may have received tainted food from the small Blakely, Ga., plant is the latest revelation in a scandal that has exposed an array of failures in the government's systems for keeping deadly pathogens out of the food supply.
Schools in California, Minnesota and Idaho received the suspected peanut products from January to November 2007, said Susan Acker, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department. Federal officials notified the affected schools last week and told them to destroy any uneaten food but think most of it had already been consumed, Acker said. She said the agency is not aware of any illnesses linked to the peanut products it bought.