WASHINGTON — A Georgia peanut plant knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products as far back as 2007, at times sending out tainted products after tests confirmed contamination, according to inspection records released Friday.
Food and Drug Administration officials earlier had said Peanut Corporation of America waited for a second test to clear peanut butter and peanuts that initially were positive for salmonella. But the agency amended its report Friday, noting that the Blakely, Ga., plant shipped some products before receiving the second test and sold others after confirming salmonella.
Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could make it harmful to consumers' health.
Michael Rogers, head of field investigations, said the FDA made the discovery after a more detailed analysis of records submitted by the company.
The salmonella outbreak has been blamed for at least eight deaths and 575 illnesses in 43 states. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation. More than 1,550 products have been recalled.
A Peanut Corp. lawyer said the company is investigating what happened at the plant and had no comment on the latest FDA findings.
Problems at the plant are not new. FDA inspectors found in 2001 that products potentially were exposed to insecticides, one of several violations uncovered during the last visit federal officials made before the current food-poisoning scare.
Many consumers, apparently disregarding the fine print of the food recall, are swearing off all brands of peanut butter, driving down sales by nearly 25 percent. Brands including Jif are buying ads to tell shoppers that their products are not affected.
The contaminated peanut butter traced to the plant represents a small percentage of the total $800 million in annual sales by peanut butter companies in the United States.
The USDA suspended all business with the company this week. It shipped some of the company's potentially contaminated peanut butter and peanuts to eight states, including school lunch programs in California, Minnesota and Idaho in 2007.
Also on Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he supports merging the nation's food safety system into one agency. His department shares duties now with the FDA.