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Inspector Didn't Report Texas Salmonella Plant for Lacking License

Mar 1, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Not only did a Texas agriculture inspector fail to note that Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) was not operating with a state license to process organic products, the inspector indicated the unlicensed plant was licensed, the Associated Press (AP) is reporting.  PCA is at the heart of the massive salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds and is linked to at least nine deaths nationwide.

It seems the inspector visited the Texas plant on no less than three occasions, said the AP and that had the inspector truthfully indicated the plant failed to obtain necessary licensing, the state health department would have been alerted; with no record of the plant, inspectors were not sent.

PCA plant inspections unearthed revolting conditions, including dead rodents, rodent excrement, and bird feathers in a crawl space above a production area in the Texas plant.  Another inspection of its Georgia plant — which wascited for mold, roaches, and a leaking roof—revealed that PCA shipped salmonella-tainted peanuts at least a dozen times in 2007 and 2008; some products were shipped before a second round of testing was conducted.

A third facility was found to have flaking paint and evidence of rodents in 2007 and 2008.   PCA promised to fix the problems, reported the AP in an earlier article; however, when inspectors returned in 2008 to ensure this was done, they found two dead mice in traps in a warehouse, as well as an open door, and a 32-inch-wide gap in strip curtains “completely exposed to the entrance of pests,” said the AP.  Mold was also found on the outside of 43 totes of blanched peanuts.

Now, hundreds of companies are facing financial and legal problems.  These include Kellogg, which is named in at least six lawsuits; Forward Foods, which filed for bankruptcy after being forced to recall 75 percent of its products; and Scotts, which is suing its supplier over claims it lied about peanut meal used in wild bird seed, which originated at PCA.  Scotts said the deception caused it "substantial damages" and "significant" injury to its brand.  

Meanwhile, Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) spokesman Bryan Black said that had the lack of license at the Texas plant been properly reported, the department would have denied PCA organic certification and notified the Department of State Health Services, said the AP. Gaylon Amonett, the inspector involved, was fired the day after state health officials ordered the recall.

Amonett worked for the TDA for 22 years and admitted to checking “yes” on 2005, 2006, and 2008 work sheets for the question asking if PCA was in possession of records indicating compliance with health codes, said the AP.  Amonett claims he checked “yes” because the plant manager advised him that such paperwork was completed and in the possession of PCA officials, reported the AP.  Amonett continued in this fashion because he simply believed the license had been granted.  Amonett received a merit raise on January 1, just six weeks before his termination, the AP said.

"We trust our inspectors to do their jobs," Black told the AP  "Any time they do not follow the protocol, it is inexcusable."

The AP also reported that Jack McCasland, environmental inspector for the Plainview-Hale County Health Department, said PCA officials led him to believe the licensing process was under way when he visited PCA’s facility prior to its opening, saying, “To be honest, I never really thought to follow up on it.  It just never occurred to me that they wouldn't be (licensed)."

To receive organic certification, processors must meet U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards and undergo monitoring by a USDA-accredited agency, said the AP; the TDA has been such an agency since 2002.  Had the Plainview plant not needed such certification, the TDA would not have been required to inspect it, added the AP.

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