June 20, 2009
ATLANTA — A south Georgia factory linked to a deadly nationwide salmonella outbreak was infested with vermin and had a leaky roof, gaping holes and other problems, attorneys said Thursday after touring the plant.
Bill Marler, an attorney who has filed nine lawsuits on behalf of salmonella victims, said he and a team of experts discovered structural problems and numerous mice during the tour of the Peanut Corp. of America's plant in Blakely, Ga.
"The roof clearly had leading problems and it was pretty easy for raw products to get near potentially contaminated products," the Seattle-based attorney said in a telephone interview. "You add mice, vermin and water and it's pretty clear how this outbreak happened."
Marler toured Peanut Corp.'s plant in Plainview, Texas, the day before, where he found similar problems including rodent and bird excrement and dead roaches.
Ron Simon, a Houston-based attorney who led a separate team through the plant, said he discovered gaps on the roof where grates appeared to have rusted off.
"Imagine a tennis racket — and you drove your hand through it. Except the hole was huge. Big enough for a grown man to crawl through — they were several feet wide."
He said he found more than 150 rat traps littered throughout the plant. To fix a leak in one of the building's skylights, he said workers had covered it with a plastic tarp kept in place by cinderblocks.
"It's a pathetic attempt to solve a serious problem," said Simon. "When you get water and peanuts together, you're getting a petri dish for salmonella."
The accounts provide a rare glimpse of the Georgia plant at the heart of the salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and was linked to the deaths of at least nine people.
The plant has been off-limits during the investigation, but Marler, Simon and several other attorneys who have filed lawsuits against Peanut Corp. have been granted access.
Both Marler and Simon said it appeared as if the Blakely plant had been recently cleaned. Peanut Corp. of America attorney Andrew S. Goldstein did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Marler said gaps in the roof could have allowed birds and vermin that carry salmonella into the building. Water from a leaky roof can make it easier for the bacteria to spread, he said.
The plant's problems have been well documented. A state inspector who searched the Georgia plant in October found only minor problems, but less than three months later federal agents scoured the building and found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other problems.
The Blakely plant was shut down in the aftermath of the outbreak.
The company voluntarily closed its Plainview plant on Feb. 9 after private test results indicated salmonella contamination. Texas officials soon found dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers in a crawl space above a production area there.
Officials from Peanut Corp., which is based in Lynchburg, Va., have repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation. The company filed for bankruptcy in February and has been targeted with at least a dozen lawsuits. It was also fined $14.6 million this month by Texas regulators.