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Firm tied to salmonella ran unlicensed Texas plant

Brett J. Blackedge, Associated Press

February 3, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — A peanut processing plant in Texas run by the same company blamed for a national salmonella outbreak operated for years uninspected and unlicensed by government health officials, The Associated Press has learned.

The Peanut Corp. of America plant in Plainview never was inspected until after the company fell under investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to Texas health records obtained by AP.

Once inspectors learned about the Texas plant, they found no sign of salmonella there. But new details about that plant — including how it could have operated unlicensed for nearly four years — raise questions about the adequacy of government efforts to keep the nation's food supply safe. Texas is among states where the FDA relies on state inspectors to oversee food safety.

The salmonella outbreak was traced to the company's sister plant in Blakely, Ga., where inspectors found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and internal records of more than a dozen positive tests for salmonella.

The outbreak so far has resulted in more than 500 reported illnesses, led to an expansive recall and caused as many as eight deaths. The government is working on a criminal investigation in the case.

In Texas, inspector Patrick Moore of the Department of State Health Services was sent to Plainview, in the sparsely populated Texas Panhandle, after salmonella was traced to the company's plant in Georgia. Moore said the Texas plant wasn't licensed with health officials and had never been inspected since it opened in March 2005. Texas requires food manufacturers to be licensed every two years and routinely inspected.

"I was not aware this plant was in operation and did not know (what) type of products processed," Moore wrote in an inspection report obtained by AP.

The plant is registered with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts to do business as Plainview Peanut Co. LLC, according to state records. But the company "was unable to present evidence at the time of the inspection of a current food manufacturers license," Moore wrote in his report.

The plant was properly registered with the FDA as a food processing plant, said David Glasgow, director of the agency's investigations branch in Dallas. FDA inspectors went through the plant two weeks ago after the state inspection and did not find salmonella or other problems, Glasgow said.

Texas ordered its inspection Jan. 12 during the FDA's investigation of the Georgia plant, after it received reports that Peanut Corp. was operating the plant in Plainview, health services spokesman Doug McBride said. Texas requires food companies to obtain two-year licenses but doesn't have enough money or inspectors to catch companies that don't.

"We can't drive up and down the street to know what people are doing behind closed doors," McBride said.

Moore reported some unsanitary conditions, such as unclean sections of a peanut roasting line. But several internal company laboratory tests dating back to November found no salmonella or other contaminants, according to documents included in Moore's report.

Plant manager Jesus Garrocho told Moore that he sent Texas health department forms to the company's Virginia headquarters more than a year ago and did not know why the licensing forms were not completed.

Moore said the plant manager promised during the January inspection to register the plant with state health officials: "He will make sure this gets in and paid," Moore wrote.

McBride said the company still hasn't done so.

"Our first preference is not to go out and shut somebody down and wipe out jobs and income," he said. "Our philosophy in any of our regulatory programs is to try to get a company in compliance."

The plant is the subject of a complaint filed since the state's inspection Jan. 12, and is scheduled for a new inspection in coming weeks, McBride said. He would not provide details about the complaint.

Garrocho referred questions Monday to company lawyers. Amy Rotenberg, a Minneapolis lawyer representing Peanut Corp., declined to comment.

The Texas plant blanches, dry roasts, oil-roasts and chops peanuts, then ships them to food companies across the country. The Georgia plant also processes peanuts, and produces peanut paste and peanut butter.

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