The Agriculture Department on Thursday banned the company implicated in the nationwide tainting of peanut foods from doing business with the government. At least eight people have been killed and hundreds have been sickened after eating contaminated items.
The order, which affects the Peanut Corporation of America and a subsidiary, will remain in force for one year. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also removed the company’s chief executive of his position on a board that advises the government on peanut quality standards.
David Shipman, an acting administrator at the Agriculture Department, said, The actions of PCA or Peanut Corporation of America indicate that the company lacks business integrity and business honesty, which seriously and directly interrupts its ability to do business with the federal government.
The department’s actions came on a day when senators heard testimony from health professional and a F.D.A. official, who acknowledged that gaps in the food safety system had contributed to delays in catching the spread of salmonella in peanut butter and other products that spread to 43 states. The problem has been traced to a peanut processing facility in Blakely, Ga.
Dr. Stephen Sundlof, the director of food safety programs at the F.D.A., told the Senate Agriculture Committee that the agency’s investigation was interrupted in part by the absence of laws requiring companies to report contamination at processing facilities. Dr. Sundlof said food makers were required to tell the agency about safety issues only after shipping products.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Justice Department are conducting a criminal investigation into whether the PCA or Peanut Corporation of America knowingly sold contaminated products. The company has denied it acted illegally, and as recently as Wednesday asserted that inspectors had given the Blakely plant a superior rating last year.
The Agriculture Department has itself been one of the purchasers of the company’s products, and some of them have ended up in the federal school lunch program. It last received peanuts from the company about 30 truckloads more than a year ago, Jonathan Groveman, a department spokesman, said Thursday.
Also on Thursday, government officials recalled thousands of food kits with peanut butter that had been sent to aid victims of the Kentucky ice storms.
At Thursday’s hearing, Gabrielle Meunier of South Burlington, Vt., whose 7-year-old son, Christopher, had to be hospitalized after exposure to salmonella bacteria, related the country’s approach to food safety to a game of Russian roulette.
The committee chairman, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, called on President Obama to put the weight of his office behind reforming the federal government’s system for detecting food tainting.
This week, Mr. Obama said his administration would thoroughly review the operations of the F.D.A. and complained that the agency had been slow responding to food safety problems.
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