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Lawyer in salmonella lawsuits tours Texas plant

Jamie Stengle, Associated Press

April 22, 2009

A lawyer said he found leaks and places where animals could get in when he toured a Texas plant Wednesday that belongs to a company linked to a deadly nationwide salmonella outbreak.

Attorney Bill Marler toured Peanut Corp. of America's Plainview, Texas, plant with several experts, mainly looking at the soundness of the building. Marler has filed nine lawsuits on behalf of salmonella victims.

The company voluntarily closed the Plainview plant Feb. 9 after private test results indicated salmonella. Days later, Texas health officials ordered the recall of peanut products from the plant after finding dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers in a crawl space above a production area there. Salmonella was later confirmed at the plant.

Marler toured the Texas Panhandle plant with a building design engineer, a former inspector for the Food and Drug Administration, a private health inspector, a videographer and a photographer. He said they saw birds flying around inside the building, dead mice and cockroaches. He said they also found standing water in some areas.

"What we're looking for is whether the facility was structurally sound enough to keep roaches and mice out," said Marler, who acknowledged that the animals seen Wednesday may have come in after the plant shut down.

Peanut Corp. was fined $14.6 million earlier this month by Texas regulators. The company's bankruptcy lawyer didn't immediately return a call Wednesday.

On Thursday, Marler will tour the company's plant in Blakely, Ga., which was at the heart of the salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and was linked to the deaths of at least nine people.

State inspectors who searched the Georgia plant in October found only minor problems, but less than three months later federal agents found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other problems. That plant was also shut down after the outbreak. Peanut Corp., which is based in Lynchburg, Va., has since filed for bankruptcy.

Marler said that he was especially interested in the Blakely plant because he said it's "pretty clear" the contamination occurred in Georgia and those peanuts were then shipped to Texas.

He said he'll be looking at the quality of the roaster at the Blakely plant.

"Did the peanuts come in contaminated and did the roasting not kill it? Or were they recontaminated after they were roasted? Are we able to say at what point the contamination occurred?" he said.

Marler, a Seattle-based foodborne illness attorney who represents about 80 victims of the salmonella outbreak, said the condition of the Plainview plant was not as bad as he thought it might be. He said spending some money spent on roofing and vermin control would probably get the facility back in working order.

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