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Lawyer says Plainview plant may not be at fault

Tommy Young, Plainview Daily Herald

April 22, 2009

A Seattle attorney whose firm specializes in food product litigation believes the Peanut Corporation of America’s Plainview plant may not be as responsible for the recent nationwide salmonella outbreak in peanut products as once thought.

"The only direct connection between this plant and people who got sick were the six people in Colorado," Bill Marler said Wednesday outside the plant following a morning inspection. "They were sickened after eating organic products that were contaminated, (and) this facility is the only one that produced organic products for (Peanut Corporation of America)."

Marler further explained the genetic "fingerprint" of the salmonella cultures found in the products in Colorado was the same as contaminated products found at PCA’s main plant in Blakely, Ga.

"It is virtually impossible for the rodents and other pests that could have contaminated the products here to have the same genetic fingerprint as what was found in the Georgia plant," Marler said.

"In my opinion, the contamination happened in Blakely and not here."

Marler’s firm represents more than 100 people from across the nation who were sickened by contaminated peanut products, including the families of two people — one in North Carolina and one in Minnesota — who died.

Nationwide, more than 650 illnesses and nine deaths have been linked to contaminated products produced by Peanut Corporation of America.

While Marler and his team of inspectors found several rodent and insect carcasses, droppings and numerous water leaks, "In general this facility seemed to be fairly well maintained."

While Marler admits there is evidence the Plainview plant could have been better maintained, he noted, "In my 16 years of handling this type of inspections I have seen a lot worse."

Marler said the fact the contamination did not occur locally makes it "...worse (that) this plant had to close down.

"Legally it doesn’t matter because it is part of the corporation that has gone bankrupt," he said.

Marler said experts estimate the loss to the peanut industry to be close to $1 billion.

"What some people don’t understand is the ripple effect this kind of thing can cause," Marler said. "Some 50-60 people here lose their jobs, the corporation goes bankrupt, there are other companies that go bankrupt due to the cost of the product recall, more people lose their jobs . . . . You add it up and that is some major money being lost, not to mention the human cost of people getting sick and dying."

Marler contends that often the types of outbreaks caused by this type of contamination are not simple mistakes.

"Unfortunately, these things happen when someone ignores a situation or thinks it’s not a big deal until it is too late, and it snowballs," he said.

Marler and his investigators were headed to inspect the Blakely plant on Thursday.

The Plainview plant voluntarily ceased production Feb. 9 and was shut down completely by state health officials after an inspection Feb. 12 uncovered holes in the plant’s roof along with the evidence of rodent, bird and insect presence.

Peanut Corporation of America filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Feb. 13.

The Texas Department of State Health Services assessed a record $14.6 million in administrative penalties against Plainview Peanut Co., LLC, for alleged violations of state food safety regulations earlier this month.

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