Federal regulators charge that the company responsible for salmonella-tainted peanut butter shipped products it knew were contaminated. The bacterial infection has sickened 501 people in 43 states since September and may be linked to eight deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that on 12 occasions in 2007 and 2008, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) sent out peanut butter and peanut paste (ground roasted peanuts used in baked goods and candies sold in supermarkets) even though it knew there was salmonella in the ingredients or finished products, officials said yesterday during a press briefing (click on the Jan. 27, 2009 hyperlink for a PDF of the transcript).

"The firm, as part of their own internal testing program, identified some type of salmonella and released a product after it was re-tested [and found not to be contaminated], in some case by a different laboratory," said Michael Rogers, director of FDA's division of field investigations. (He wouldn't identify the lab.)

Rogers added that PCA didn’t take steps to clean its Blakely, Ga., plant or to reduce the chance that the tainted products would contaminate other products. (We've got the lowdown on how salmonella gets into peanut butter.)

FDA Director of Food Safety Stephen Sundlof said at the press conference that it's "a violation of the law" to ship contaminated products. "It's inconceivable that the FDA or the state of Georgia allowed a plant like this to operate," says Seattle personal-injury attorney Bill Marler, who sued PCA in federal court in Albany, Ga., last week on behalf of a 7-year-old boy who got sick after eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter.  "This company ... got positive tests and shipped it in any event. If that’s not criminal behavior, I don’t know what is."

George Clarke, a PCA spokesperson, refused to comment when reached by phone and said he'd respond via email. We'll update you if we hear back. But he released a statement to other media that said "PCA has cooperated fully with FDA from Day 1 ... and will continue to do so."

The FDA has warned consumers not to eat a long list of peanut butter products. Salmonella can cause symptoms including diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. In severe cases, antibiotics and even hospitalization may be necessary to treat it. Young children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are the most vulnerable; authorities said that one-fifth of the victims in this outbreak are under age 5.

Image © iStockphoto/David Crockett