ATLANTA (AP) -- Of Georgia's four peanut butter plants, the one at the center of an investigation into a nationwide salmonella outbreak was the only one where samples weren't pulled last year to be tested for the potentially deadly bacteria, according to inspection records released Monday by the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
State officials did two inspections at the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely last year -- including one on Oct. 23, more than a month after the first people were sickened -- but there is no indication in those reports that samples were taken for any kind of testing.
Agriculture department officials did not immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment on why there were no records of testing samples having been taken at that plant last year. A third-party public relations firm that has been speaking for Peanut Corp. also did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted about 500 cases of salmonella in 43 states, and the bacteria may have contributed to at least seven deaths. All the illnesses began between Sept. 3 and Jan. 6, but most of the people became sick after Oct. 1. The outbreak has also prompted the recall of some 390 products by about 80 companies.
Georgia agriculture officials had, until Monday, declined to release last year's inspection records for the Peanut Corp. plant, citing the ongoing investigation into the current outbreak. But they said in an e-mail Monday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is leading the investigation, had cleared the records for release.
Peanut butter has long been considered a relatively low-risk food for salmonella, in part because its low moisture content means it doesn't support microbial growth as well as high-risk foods, like lunch meats and poultry. For that reason, it's normal for state inspectors not to pull samples for testing, said Robert Gravani, a professor in the food science department at Cornell University.
Prior to a salmonella outbreak traced in 2007 to a peanut butter plant operated by Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods Inc. in Sylvester, officials in Georgia didn't routinely test for salmonella. But after that outbreak, state Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin directed inspectors to start routinely testing peanut butter for salmonella.
Agriculture department inspection records show that samples were taken for salmonella testing at the Blakely plant in August 2007. Records also show that samples were taken for salmonella testing at least once a year in both 2007 and 2008 at Georgia's other three peanut butter plants.
The June 10, 2008, inspection report for the Peanut Corp. plant shows relatively minor violations, including a bulk tank scraper that was not properly covered and had no cleaning schedule and possible metal flakes from a metal scraper used to clean the outside of equipment. Both those violations were corrected before the inspector left, according to the report. The company was given until the next day to correct a third violation, dust buildup on a fan in the butter room.
The Oct. 23, 2008, report shows that tote containers had butter residue and "black buildup." The report says a liner was placed inside the tote prior to filling but also says the practice would be suspended starting that day. The company was given two weeks to correct a second violation, "mildew and possibly some static dust on ceiling of butter storage room."
"If you only had two or three violations, and several of them could be corrected on site while an inspector is there, that doesn't seem very serious," said Gravani, who added his observations should be taken as speculation since he has not visited the Blakely plant.
The Peanut Corp. plant had four routine inspections in 2006 and three in 2007. No samples were taken in 2006, which was before there had been a salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter. The three samples taken in August 2007 all tested negative for salmonella and for pesticides.
Violations in 2006 included dust and grease buildup on unused equipment, prep tables and walls, some ingredient spillage and a gap under warehouse dock doors that could be an entry point for rodents. Among the violations in the 2007 reports were plastic jars stored on the floor, old food residue on a wall and, in one case, a food contact surface that was not properly cleaned and sanitized.
Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, said that last violation sounded most serious but still didn't necessarily indicate dangerous conditions. He said the other problems sounded like relatively low-level violations and that it didn't sound like there was much chance of contamination, though he said he couldn't be sure, not having visited the plant himself.