Salmonella At Yet Another Peanut Processor: FDA Warning Letters Tell the Story

Published on
June 26, 2009

Just when you thought it was safe to make that triple-decker peanut butter and banana sandwich, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has slapped another big peanut processor with a warning letter.

I wrote about the salmonella outbreak at a Peanut Corporation of America plant in March and offered some advice on how to investigate our national food safety system.

Now Universal Blanchers (isn't that an ambitious name?) of Peachtree City, Ga., is in trouble. Bacteria-laden, rodent-infested, scummy, crummy trouble.

As far as I can tell, nobody has written about the company's case, even though, just like Peanut Corp., they have a salmonella problem.

The company's case points the way to a great source for breaking food safety stories: the FDA's warning letters.

The agency sent Universal Blanchers a warning letter dated June 9, chock full of story-ready facts:

  • In February, FDA inspectors found Salmonella infantis in eight different spots in the company's Dublin, Texas, plant. "These findings lead FDA to conclude that your firm's roasted peanuts have been prepared, packed or held under insanitary conditions whereby the peanuts may have been rendered injurious to health," the FDA wrote, adding that the peanuts "may have become contaminated with filth."
  • To make it clear that the bacteria weren't just passing through, the agency describes the salmonella "as a niche or potential resident organism in your facility. One of these subsamples was collected from the floor within 6 to 10 feet of where roasted peanuts are packaged, and there is no physical barrier between raw peanut handling and roasted peanut packaging to prevent cross-contamination."
  • The company pleaded its case in March, saying that it had shut down its operations, cleaned the plant and ramped up its internal testing program. "However, these procedures may not be sufficient to identify all of the niche areas harboring this organism and eradicate it from the food processing environment," the FDA wrote.
  • The crud inside the ovens was an inch thick, and, elsewhere in the plant, some of the filth glowed. The agency found "a substance that fluoresced under a black light on the buckets inside the elevator for the Sorter Bin in the roasting plant."
  • The doors to the plant were rodent friendly, even when shut. To make that point, the FDA wrote that they had done a little math. "FDA investigators observed forty-two (42) apparent rodent pellets inside Air Handler."

The rodent poop and glowing filth are nice touches, but, really, salmonella is plenty. If you come down with salmonellosis, you can expect a severe fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea so horrid it's sometimes bloody.

These letters are great for another reason. They tell you, in essence, who to dial first. Here's a list:

  • Universal Blanchers CEO Michael Fischer
  • Thomas Kevin Gaines, the vice president of Southwest Operations in Dallas
  • Reynaldo R. Rodriguez Jr., the FDA's Dallas district director
  • Sherrie L. Krolczyk, the FDA's compliance Officer
  • Susan E. Tennyson, the director of the Texas health department's Environmental and Consumer Safety Section in Austin

Truth is, you probably will be routed to the FDA's public information office. I recommend Mike Herndon at (301) 796-4673 or

Be nice to him. He's dealt with just about every food scare you can imagine.

Spend some time with the warning letters site. They have letters going back to 1996. You can search by company, topic or even district office. A search for "peanut" came up with 13 hits but, interestingly, nothing from Peanut Corp. You can browse by topic and find some interesting stuff, too. If you want some more ideas, read my Q&A with the Rochester Democrat's Justina Wang.