WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. peanut company blamed for a salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 600 people was more concerned about the cost of the contamination than public health, members of the U.S. Congress told a hearing on Wednesday.
Peanut Corporation of America shipped peanut products from its plants to schools, nursing homes and food processors, even after getting lab tests showing salmonella contamination, they said.
The contamination, which may be linked to eight deaths, has forced one of the biggest food recalls in U.S. history, scared Americans away from one of their favorite foods and brought the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under intense scrutiny.
Republican Representative Greg Walden held up a plastic jar filled with recalled products and asked Peanut Corporation of America President Stewart Parnell if he would like to sample them.
"Lives were lost and people were sickened because they took a chance, I believe knowingly, with products that were contaminated," Walden said in opening comments at a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman displayed excerpts from internal company e-mails he said were from Parnell. "What they show is this company cared more about its financial bottom line than about the safety of its customers," Waxman said.
One e-mail said the problem was "costing us a huge (amount of) $$$$" while another said the company "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."
Inspections showed the company had not only several tests that showed salmonella contamination but also cockroaches, a leaky roof and filthy equipment, the FDA has said.
As the members of Congress spoke, the FDA released 13 more notifications of recalls, from Atkins Nutritionals Inc to Palmer Candy company. More than 1,800 products have been recalled, either because they were linked to PCA's Blakely, Georgia, plant or because such links could not be ruled out.
The New York Times reported last week that peanut butter sales across the nation were down nearly 25 percent.
On Tuesday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said Peanut Corp voluntarily closed its facility in Plainview after laboratory tests indicated salmonella contamination.
FBI officials in Atlanta and Virginia said on Monday they had joined the FDA in a criminal investigation of the company.
The outbreak is the latest in a series involving tainted lettuce, peppers and spinach that have eroded U.S. public confidence in food safety and renewed calls for change at the FDA by the Government Accountability Office, consumer groups, the food industry, Congress and the Obama administration.
Writing by Maggie Fox; Editing by Bill Trott