WASHINGTON —The federal government has begun a criminal investigation into the peanut company responsible for a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people, killed at least eight and prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
The Food and Drug Administration is working with the Justice Department to explore possible criminal charges against the Peanut Corp. of America of Lynchburg, Va., which shipped contaminated products produced by its plant in Blakely, Ga.
"There is a criminal investigation that has been initiated through our office of criminal investigation at the FDA. They have to work through the Department of Justice to develop a case and prosecute, if that's what it comes to," said Stephen Sundloff, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "It's an open investigation."
Neither Sundloff nor the Justice Department would comment further. In a statement late Friday, Peanut Corp. expressed its "deepest and most sincere empathy for those sickened"
Outside experts said the investigation could result in misdemeanor or felony charges against the company. At least 529 people in 43 states have been sickened in the outbreak, and more than 500 products have been recalled.
The move came after federal officials discovered that the company had knowingly shipped products contaminated with salmonella 12 times in 2007 and 2008.
"Under the food safety law, if you ship an adulterated food in interstate commerce, that violates one of the so-called prohibited acts and can be prosecuted criminally," said Michael Taylor of George Washington University, a former FDA food safety official. "Food can be considered adulterated if it is produced under unsanitary conditions."
Taylor said the penalties available under current law are limited to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail for each misdemeanor and a $10,000 fine and five years in jail for a felony. Prosecutors could potentially file separate counts based on each contaminated lot, but it was unclear Friday whether that would be possible.
The plant produces a variety of peanut products used in ice creams, snack crackers, dog biscuits and other items. Nationally distributed brands of peanut butter are not affected by the recall, but Sundloff said Friday that officials could not be certain about "boutique" brands of peanut butter made by individual stores.