Says a careless attitude and "poor oversight by the Texas Department of Agriculture" led to deaths and illnesses traced to a Texas peanut plant.

Hank Gilbert on Monday, December 14th, 2009 in in a press release

Hank Gilbert says agency's inadequate oversight allowed salmonella-related deaths, illnesses

East Texas Democrat Hank Gilbert, running a second time for state agriculture commissioner, blasted out of the chute with a dramatic claim about the agency he wants to head.

Gilbert, hoping to deny Republican Commissioner Todd Staples a second term, said Dec. 14: "A careless, lackadaisical attitude has already resulted in the deaths of eight and more than 600 cases of illness nationally thanks to poor TDA oversight at the former Peanut Corporation of America factory in Plainview."

He was referring to eight (the count actually reached nine) deaths due to salmonella poisonings traced to the corporation's since-shuttered Plainview peanut plant.

We wondered if Gilbert accurately characterized the department's role in ensuring safe food processing plants.

It turns out that a department inspector did visit the offending Peanut Corporation of America plant in 2005, 2006 and 2008 and also checked a box on a form filed after each visit stating that the plant had a license required by the state health department to operate.

But the Lubbock-based inspector, who was visiting the plant to certify it as organic, has admitted to making false assumptions about its health certification on each inspection. When his actions came to light in the wake of the salmonella crisis, he was fired.

The inspector, Gaylon Armonett, told the Associated Press the reason he checked "yes" the first time was that a plant manager told him an application for state health licensing had been completed and was in the hands of officials at the company's headquarters. Armonett said he checked "yes" in the succeeding years because he assumed the license was granted.

"It's an inadvertent mistake," Armonett said, "and I'm sorry for it."

Agriculture department spokesman Bryan Black suggested it wasn’t the department’s responsibility to police any plant’s cleanliness. "Local and state health departments are responsible for protecting consumers from food-borne illnesses," Black said. "TDA certifies products and processes to national organic standards and has strict protocols in place."

The Texas Department of State Health Services confirmed that firms like the peanut plant that manufacture food for sale to the public must have a state-issued food manufacturer license. The agency has said it didn’t know of the Plainview plant until the salmonella outbreak. The plant closed in February.

"We never received an application for a license," DSHS spokeswoman Allison Lowery said. "As you can understand, it would be very difficult for us to know about a company when it fails to license with us."
Lowery continued: "As soon as we were aware of the problems... we immediately ordered the company to close this plant and recall all products made there. We also quickly took over the recall after we got no response from the company to our recall order. And we assessed $14.6 million in administrative penalties against the company."

In his statement about the peanut plant, Gilbert overstates the agriculture department's role; it's not the primary agency responsible for policing such facilities for health hazards. Still, its inspector admittedly slipped up in this case. If he'd flagged the Plainview plant for lacking the required food manufacturer license, it might have been shut down or its conditions improved. That could have prevented the 2009 illnesses and deaths.

We rate Gilbert’s statement Half True.