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FDA: Plant knew nuts were bad

WASHINGTON - A Georgia peanut plant knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products as far back as 2007, at times sending out tainted products after tests confirmed contamination, according to inspection records released Friday.

Food and Drug Administration officials earlier had said Peanut Corp. of America waited for a second test to clear peanut butter and peanuts that initially were positive for salmonella. But the agency amended its report Friday, noting that the Blakely plant actually shipped some products before receiving the second test and sold others after confirming salmonella.

Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could make it harmful to consumers' health.

In 2007 the company shipped chopped peanuts on July 18 and 24 after salmonella was confirmed by private lab tests. Peanut Corp. sold products 'on or after the positive salmonella results were obtained,' the FDA report states.

In other cases, the company didn't wait for a second round of salmonella tests.

'In some instances, peanut products were shipped by (the company) prior to having assurance that the products were negative for salmonella,' said Michael Rogers, head of field investigations for the FDA.

Rogers said the FDA made the discovery after a more detailed analysis of records submitted by the company.

The salmonella outbreak has been blamed for at least eight deaths and 575 illnesses in 43 states. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation. More than 1,550 products have been recalled.

A Peanut Corp. lawyer said the company is investigating what happened at the plant and had no comment on the latest FDA findings.

'We have not made a determination yet on liability,' attorney Amy Rotenberg said. 'We are neither denying or admitting liability at this point. We are still investigating.'

Peanut Corp. previously said it 'categorically denies any allegations' that it sought lab results that would put its products in a favorable light.

Problems at the plant are not new. FDA inspectors found in 2001 that products potentially were exposed to insecticides, one of several violations uncovered during the last visit federal officials made before the current food-poisoning scare, according to a report obtained by The Associated Press.

Also on Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he supports merging the nation's food-safety system into one agency. His department shares duties now with the FDA.

The USDA abruptly suspended all business with the company this week. It shipped some of the company's potentially contaminated peanut butter and peanuts to eight states, including school lunch programs in California, Minnesota and Idaho in 2007. None of the states reported illnesses as a result of people eating the products, agency officials said.