Texas Peanut Corp. Plant Ordered Closed

Plant operated by a company at the center of a national salmonella outbreak was shuttered after state health officials found dead rodents, feces and feathers.

PLAINVIEW, Texas (AP) -- Texas health officials shuttered a peanut plant operated by a company at the center of a national salmonella outbreak and ordered it to recall all products after inspectors found dead rodents, feces and feathers above a production area.

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services issued the order Thursday after finding a filth-infested crawl space at the Peanut Corp. of America plant. During an inspection Wednesday, officials also found that an air handling system was pulling debris from the crawl space into areas where dry roasted peanuts, peanut meal and granulated peanuts were processed.

The volume of products that would need to be pulled back was not immediately known. Many of the plant's customers -- mostly manufacturers -- had already begun holding products back or running their own tests.

The plant in the Panhandle city of Plainview, which employs about 30 people, must close indefinitely after operating unlicensed and uninspected for nearly four years since it opened in 2005.

Health department spokesman Doug McBride said it was up to Peanut Corp. to inform its clients of the recall, but it wasn't immediately clear if the company was complying. Phone messages seeking comment from the company weren't returned, and no information regarding the Texas action was posted on the company's site.

The Lynchburg, Va.-based Peanut Corp. is already under federal investigation in connection with the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 600 people and may have caused at least nine deaths nationwide. More than 2,000 possibly contaminated consumer products had already been recalled in one of the largest product recalls ever.

Federal investigators last month identified a Georgia peanut processing plant operated by Peanut Corp. as the source of the salmonella outbreak. The Plainview plant, run by Peanut Corp. subsidiary Plainview Peanut Co., had not had a state health inspection until after problems arose at the Georgia plant.

Officials at the Plainview plant had voluntarily stopped production Monday after initial lab tests showed likely salmonella contamination. Further testing was needed to confirm the results, but the health department said Thursday that its orders are not contingent on finding salmonella.

Calls to the home listed as the residence of the plant manager went unanswered late Thursday. No one answered the door.

David W. Evans, executive director of the Hale County Industrial Foundation, said the company was lured to the area with tax breaks and incentives for maintaining an employee quota. He said that quota wasn't met.

However, the plant's presence in Plainview was small. About 1,000 people work at a nearby Wal-Mart distribution plant, and a Cargill meatpacking plant a couple of miles away employs nearly 1,500.

Kenneth Kendrick, who worked as an assistant manager at the plant for several months in 2006, said Thursday that he had sent as many as six e-mails to the state health department while he worked there.

He said his complaints chronicled a leaking roof, which he knew could be a problem because of bird excrement.

"Anything nasty you can think of comes from water off a roof," said Kendrick, who said he left the plant voluntarily.

Kendrick said his initial complaints about the plant spurred no action. Last month, he complained again to state officials after his grandchildren became sick after eating peanut butter crackers.

The federal government has opened a criminal investigation into the company, and its president, Stewart Parnell, repeatedly refused to answer questions Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, which is seeking ways to prevent another outbreak.

A message left seeking comment from Parnell Thursday wasn't immediately returned.

State law allows the Department of State Health Services to issue such recall orders when it finds conditions that it says pose "an immediate and serious threat to human life or health."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which sent inspectors back to the plant after Monday's test result, said in an e-mail that its investigation there was continuing.

Many companies hadn't waited for state or federal officials to take action. Robert Grauer, president of In a Nut Shell, a San Leandro, Calif., said his company decided to hold back about 200 cases of peanuts from the Texas plant before the order was issued.

"We're not going to take a chance risking our customers -- not over some peanuts," he said.

A handful of Whole Foods Market supermarkets in northern California that received products containing peanuts from the Texas plant pulled from them from shelves two days before the Texas recall "in an overabundance of caution," said Libba Letton, spokeswoman for the Austin, Texas-based company.

Associated Press writers Jamie Stengle, Linda Stewart Ball and Danny Robbins in Dallas contributed to this report.

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