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Possibly tainted peanut butter sent to schools

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WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department shipped possibly contaminated peanut butter and other foods to schools in at least three states under a contract with the Georgia company blamed for a nationwide salmonella outbreak.

The government abruptly suspended all business with the company Thursday, as officials defended their efforts to halt the outbreak that has sickened at least 575 people in 43 states. At least eight have died. It's become one of the largest food recalls ever, including more than 1,300 products.

The potentially contaminated products went to school free lunch programs in California, Minnesota and Idaho in 2007, the Department of Agriculture said Friday. Peanut butter and roasted peanuts processed by the Peanut Corp. of America were sent to the schools.

None of the states reported illnesses as a result of students eating the recalled peanut products.

Jim Brownlee, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department, said there have been no potentially contaminated shipments from the company in the last year. It was unclear how much of the suspect food might still remain uneaten at the schools.

Despite ongoing reports of illnesses linked to the company, the Agriculture department only Thursday suspended Peanut Corp. from participating in government contract programs, for at least a year. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also removed Stewart Parnell, president of the company, from USDA's Peanut Standards Board.

The company's actions indicate that it "lacks business integrity and business honesty, which seriously and directly hinders its ability to do business with the federal government," said David Shipman, acting administrator of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, said in a statement.

The recalled foods used ingredients from the Peanut Corp. processing plant in Blakely, Ga. While the outbreak appears to be slowing down, new illnesses are still being reported.

School officials across the country have been checking cafeterias and vending machines for the recalled products, and some have stopped serving any peanut-related products at all, out of an abundance of caution.

The Food and Drug Administration learned only weeks ago that the Peanut Corp. of America had received a series of private tests dating back to 2007 showing salmonella in their products from the Georgia plant, but later shipped the items after obtaining negative test results.

The Agriculture Department initially said that school meal programs were not affected by the large-scale recall. But that changed when Peanut Corp. expanded its recall to all peanut products made at the plant since Jan. 1, 2007.

At a Senate hearing Thursday on the salmonella outbreak, lawmakers reacted angrily when told that food companies and state safety inspectors don't have to report to the FDA when test results find pathogens in a processing plant, leaving the federal government in the dark.

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