February 13, 2009 / 11:02 PM / 11 years ago

Audit urged for FDA-state pacts after peanut scare

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Health and Human Services Department should audit the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of state inspection contracts after the salmonella outbreak involving peanuts, a Democratic lawmaker said on Friday.

The building of the now-closed Peanut Corporation of America plant is pictured in Blakely, Georgia on January 29, 2009. REUTERS/Matthew Bigg

The salmonella outbreak traced to the Peanut Corporation of America’s plant in Blakely, Georgia, has forced one of the biggest food recalls in U.S. history, sickened 636 people, may have killed nine and brought the FDA under intense scrutiny.

A survey conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health found 28 percent of Americans had stopped eating foods they heard were involved in the recall, while 15 percent were no longer eating any foods containing peanuts.

Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of a House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA, said an audit by the department’s inspector general was needed to find any problems with the FDA’s oversight of other state inspection contracts.

The FDA signs state inspection contracts because it does not have enough staff to oversee all the plants in the United States with enough frequency. The agency has asked Congress for more powers and resources to inspect food facilities.

On Thursday, Texas state health officials ordered Peanut Corporation to recall all products made at its Plainview, Texas, plant after finding contamination and filthy conditions there.

The FDA had not inspected the Blakely plant since 2001, delegating the responsibility to the Georgia Department of Agriculture beginning in 2006.

It was during this time that internal tests conducted by Peanut Corporation found salmonella 12 times, first starting in 2007, at the Blakely facility. The company sold the product anyway.

An FDA plant inspection report has since revealed cracks in the floor, live cockroaches, mold and water dripping from the ceiling in an area where finished products were stored.

“There appeared to be a problem with the oversight of this particular contract because of the failure of these inspections to uncover glaring unsanitary conditions that were discovered later after the salmonella outbreak,” DeLauro said in a letter to Daniel Levinson, the inspector general at HHS.

“Given the varying standards of inspection programs across the country, it is probable that there are other states with similar situations,” she said.

The inspector general’s office first identified the weakness at the FDA in June 2000, DeLauro said.

The salmonella outbreak has led to the recall of more than 1,800 products, including crackers and ice cream.

Peanut Corporation, a peanut processing company and maker of peanut butter for bulk distribution, sought bankruptcy protection on Friday. FBI officials in Atlanta and Virginia have joined the FDA in a criminal investigation of the company.

Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by Peter Cooney

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