U.S. officials say peanut products possibly tainted with salmonella were sent to schools in three states as part of a free lunch program. The peanut butter and roasted peanuts were processed by the Peanut Corporation of America, which has been blamed for the recent salmonella outbreak.

U.S. Senators say public health officials failed the public.

Salmonella is a bacteria that can kill.

A salmonella outbreak in the United States caused by tainted peanut products has killed eight people and sickened at least 575 others.

Concern is growing. Tainted peanut products may have been sent to schools in three states, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday.    

Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, says Americans can no longer count on the safety of basic food items. "Peanut butter that we put in our kids sandwiches that they take to school" he said. "If that's not safe then we have to ask, what is?"

At a Senate hearing on Thursday, lawmakers said the recent outbreak shows that America's food safety regulations need to be tightened.  
"All this happened because of failure," Senator Amy Klobuchar said. "The failure of our government to prevent unsafe food from entering the food chain."

The first salmonella case was reported in September, federal officials say. In early January, officials identified peanut products from a plant in Georgia as the source. The plant belongs to the Peanut Corporation of America.  

More than 1,300 foods that had ingredients from the Georgia plant have been recalled and the factory has been shut down.

US food safety officials say crucial information had not been shared by both state officials and company executives.  

Gabrielle Meunier told senators her seven-year-old son became sick in December from peanut butter crackers.  

She says federal agencies must use technology to communicate food safety information to the public when it becomes available. "Those involved with outbreak response should never underestimate how much the victims crave information," she said. "I was kept in the dark for way too long throughout this process."

Federal officials launched a criminal investigation into the company after learning it shipped products that originally tested positive for salmonella but then retested them,  getting negative results.  The company has denied wrongdoing.

Senator Patrick Leahy says fines are not punishment enough.  "I'd like to see some people go to jail!"

Caroline Smith DeWaal directs the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest. She urged congress to improve food safety regulations.  She says the outbreak could  continue because peanut butter has a long shelf-life.  "This could go on for a long time," she said. "Unless we can really actively get these products off the retail shelves but also out of people's homes."

The company's products will be barred from federal contracts for a year.