Federal marshals serve inspection warrant to NJ food company

Apr 8, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – US Marshals today executed an inspection warrant at a New Jersey fruit and nut company after it refused to give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) access to its distribution records related to peanut products received from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), a Virginia-based company linked to the recent national Salmonella outbreak.

The company, Westco Fruit and Nuts Inc, had also refused a Mar 23 FDA request to recall the products it made with peanut ingredients from PCA. Companies are required by law to allow the FDA to inspect the company facilities and access distributions records, but the agency doesn't have the authority to order mandatory recalls, the FDA said today in a press release. The company also rebuffed the FDA's Mar 26 request for distribution records.

Sebastian Cianci, FDA spokesman, told CIDRAP News that the firm cooperated with the federal warrant and turned over records. "But it will be some time before we know what information we can glean from the documents," he said, adding that investigators hope the records will reveal the firm's customers so that the FDA can notify them that they may have received Westco products that contained ingredients from PCA.

Sending US Marshals to obtain distributions records doesn't happen very often, Cianci said. "It is safe to say this is an uncommon event." 

The outbreak, which involved Salmonella enterica serotype Typhimurium, has sickened at least 691 people from 46 states and possibly contributed to nine deaths. Nearly 4,000 products containing PCA peanuts or peanut ingredients have so far have been recalled in what is shaping up to become the nation's largest ever ingredient-driven foodborne illness outbreak.

Michael Chappell, the FDA's acting commissioner of regulatory affairs, said in the press release that the FDA's action against the company was warranted because the company wasn't willing to share information the FDA needs to ensure food safety. "The FDA uses all appropriate legal means necessary to obtain information and fully investigate firms or individuals who put the health of consumers at risk," he said.

The FDA said between Nov 19, 2008, and Dec 30, 2008, Westco receive three shipments of oil-roasted salted redskin jumbo peanuts from PCA's Blakely, Ga., facility. Westco repacked the peanuts into different size configurations and used them in a variety of mixed nut and trail mix products until early February 2009.

On Feb 9 New Jersey officials placed an embargo on Westco's distribution facility to block the company from sending out potentially contaminated peanut products. The FDA said it hasn't received any reports of illnesses or deaths linked to Westco products.

The FDA today repeated its Mar 23 warning for consumers to check their homes for Westco products, dispose of the ones they find, and wash their hands after handling the products.

Jacob Moradi, Westco's owner, told ABC News on Mar 23 that his products were safe and that a recall would destroy his business.

"They are asking me to commit suicide based on presumption," he said. "They have no proof that anyone got sick from eating whole redskin peanuts roasted in oil." He told ABC that he had the nuts tested at an FDA-approved lab and that they showed no evidence of contamination.

In 2007 following a spate of foodborne illness outbreaks, the Bush administration unveiled a new food protection plan that proposed giving the FDA the authority to require companies to recall unsafe foods.

See also:

Apr 8 FDA press release

Nov 6, 2007, CIDRAP News story "US food safety plan calls for FDA recall power"

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