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The Georgia plant that produced the salmonella-tainted peanut butter, which to date has killed at least seven people and sickened nearly 500, was cited several times in 2006 and 2007 for health violations including dirty surfaces, grease residue, and dirt buildup in the plant.

According to inspections reports The New York Times received from Georgia officials:

Inspections of the plant in Blakely, Ga., by the State Agriculture Department found areas of rust that could flake into food, gaps in warehouse doors large enough for rodents to get through, unmarked spray bottles and containers and numerous violations of other practices designed to prevent food contamination. The plant, owned by the Peanut Corporation of America of Lynchburg, Va., has been shut down.

A typical entry from an inspection report, dated Aug. 23, 2007, said: “The food-contact surfaces of re-work kettle in the butter room department were not properly cleaned and sanitized.” Additional entries noted: “The food-contact surfaces of the bulk oil roast transfer belt” in a particular room “were not properly cleaned and sanitized. The food-contact surfaces of pan without wheels in the blanching department were not properly cleaned and sanitized.”- Roni Caryn Rabin, The New York Times

In 2008, two inspection reports cited the plant in violation of safety practices ensuring that “food and non-food contact surfaces were cleanable, properly designed, constructed and used.”

According to officials, the state of Georgia had contracted with the FDA to perform plant inspections on the federal agency’s behalf.

Why did it take a salmonella outbreak to close a food processing plant that should have been forced into compliance or shut down by the FDA years ago? The answer may be, as potential FDA head Dr. Steven Nissen has suggested, that the FDA is simply too understaffed and overworked to responsibly handle the enormous tasks involved in food inspection. For the health of all Americans, the new administration can’t let this kind of FDA languish in mediocrity any longer.

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