WASHINGTON (AP) -- The owner of a Virginia peanut company urged his workers to ship tainted products after receiving test results identifying salmonella, imploring employees to "turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money," according to internal company e-mails disclosed Wednesday by a House committee.
The company e-mails obtained by the House panel showed that Peanut Corp. of America owner Stewart Parnell ordered the shipments tainted with the bacteria because he was worried about lost sales.
At one point, Parnell said his workers "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money" and at another point told his plant manager to "turn them loose" after learning some peanuts were contaminated with salmonella.
The disclosures came in correspondence released by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Wednesday during a hearing on the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 600 people, may be linked to eight deaths and has led to one of the largest recalls in history with more than 1,800 product pulled.
A federal criminal investigation is under way.
"We appear to have a total systemic breakdown," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations panel.
Parnell was ordered by subpoena to appear before Congress on Wednesday to discuss the outbreak blamed in large part on his company's Georgia plant.
In prepared testimony, a laboratory owner told the House panel that the Lynchburg, Va.-based peanut company's disregard for tests identifying salmonella in its product is "virtually unheard of" in the nation's food industry and should prompt efforts to increase federal oversight of product safety.
Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories Inc., said his company was among those that tested Peanut Corp. of America's products and notified the Georgia plant that salmonella was found in some of its peanut stock. Peanut Corp. sold the products anyway, according to a Food and Drug Administration inspection report.
"It is not unusual for Deibel Labs or other food testing laboratories to find that samples clients submit do test positive for salmonella and other pathogens, nor is it unusual that clients request that samples be retested," Deibel said in prepared testimony to a House subcommittee. "What is virtually unheard of is for an entity to disregard those results and place potentially contaminated products into the stream of commerce."
Deibel said he hopes the crisis leads to a greater role for FDA in overseeing food safety and providing more guidance to food makers.
The investigation is starting to zero in on the question of who was responsible.
Stupak says he wants know how Peanut Corp. managed to sell allegedly tainted goods month after month without triggering action by state and federal health authorities.
The company, now under FBI investigation, makes only about 1 percent of U.S. peanut products. But its ingredients are used by dozens of other food companies.
Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could harm consumers' health.
Peanut Corp.'s troubles mounted this week as the FBI raided corporate headquarters in Lynchburg as well as the Georgia plant. On Monday night, the company closed a second facility, in Plainview, Texas, after test results earlier in the day indicated salmonella was present in samples taken at the Texas plant. None of the products had been distributed to consumers, but the finding raised the prospect of a broader recall.
Further testing is needed to confirm the results, said Doug McBride, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
After the results came back Monday, the FDA sent inspectors back to the Texas plant to check more thoroughly for signs of problems similar to those found at the Georgia plant, which has been identified as the source of the salmonella outbreak.
The company has said it is still investigating what happened and has expressed regret and concern for people who became ill. It is not clear whether Parnell will testify Wednesday or assert his constitutional right to not answer questions that may incriminate him.