Peanut Company Employees Indicted For 2009 Salmonella Outbreak
February 22, 2013

Peanut Company Employees Indicted For 2009 Salmonella Outbreak

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Four employees of a former peanut processor linked to the 2009 salmonella outbreak that poisoned hundreds of people and killed nine have been indicted by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) on Thursday (Feb 21).

Stewart and Michael Parnell, two brothers that owned and operated the now-bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America, and former PCA employees Samuel Lightsey, plant operations manager, and Mary Wilkerson, plant quality assurance manager, have been officially indicted for knowingly distributing contaminated peanut products and obstructing the  investigation of the outbreak. The indictment includes 75-counts of criminal activity pertaining to the 2009 outbreak.

The troubles for PCA began in 2009 when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) traced the national outbreak of salmonella to one of the company´s processing plants in Blakely, Georgia. The plant produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste, which had been sold to customers across the country.

DOJ prosecutors alleged that the peanut processor covered up the presence of salmonella for years, creating fake certificates showing the products were safe even when their lab results proved otherwise. The Parnell brothers and Lightsey were charged with conspiracy mail and wire fraud and the introduction and distribution of tainted and mislabeled food. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson are separately charged with obstruction of justice.

Even after the outbreak was traced back to peanuts from PCA, the DOJ said the company tried to cover the presence of the bacteria in its products. The department said the company and its plants also had a history of chronic unsanitary conditions that led to frequent salmonella contamination.

Incriminating emails had also been uncovered, confirming the peanut company´s shady business practices even years before the outbreak.

In one email, dated March 21, 2007, PCA President Stewart Parnell -- apparently worried that testing would delay shipments to customers -- allegedly said: “Just ship it. I cannot afford to loose (sic) another customer.”

In another, several months later, he allegedly tells a PCA worker that “these lab tests and COAs (certificates of lab analyses) are (expletive) breaking me/us.”

"When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk," Stuart Delery, head of the DOJ´s Civil Division, said in a statement.

"The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," added Delery, who is also principal deputy assistant attorney general.

The Parnells are scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 28 in Albany, GA. Court dates for the accomplices have yet to be set.

Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore LLP, the law firm representing Stewart Parnell, said in a statement that it was disappointed that the government had decided to pursue an indictment and will bring a “vigorous defense” to court.

“While Mr. Parnell and others associated with PCA have to date remained silent on the circumstances surrounding the government's salmonella investigation, as this matter progresses it will become clear that Mr. Parnell never intentionally shipped or caused to be shipped any tainted food products capable of harming PCA's customers,” the law firm said.

The law firm also noted that US health regulators were in contact with PCA regularly and knew about PCA´s salmonella testing protocols, and had not made any objections to the testing policies or protocols that were in place at the time.

When the 2009 outbreak hit, PCA supplied only about 2.5 percent of the nation´s peanut products, including peanut butter sold to institutions and paste and meal used in foods made by hundreds of other companies. Peanut paste from PCA has been used to make cookies, candy, ice cream, crackers and other snacks.

John Roth, director of the FDA´s Office of Criminal Investigations, said that once the outbreak became public, PCA´s Blakely plant had recalled more than 2,100 products from 200 companies — basically everything that had been produced since 2007.

At the time, William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner, called the outbreak "a poster child for everything that went wrong [with the USA's food-safety system]. Down the line, you can find flaws and failures."

The salmonella outbreak forced PCA to close it facilities and ended up putting the company into bankruptcy. In all, 714 people were sickened by the contaminated products in 46 states, of which nine died from their illnesses.

One of those who died was Clifford Tousignant, whose son, Lou, said he has been waiting four long years for the results of this inquiry.

“This is a good day,” he told USA TODAY from his office in Walnut Creek, Calif. “I'm an emotional train wreck, this is bringing it all back,” he said.

His 80-year-old father had been in an assisted living facility in Brainerd, Minn. A diabetic, he ate peanut butter every night to keep his blood sugar steady while he slept.

Tousignant said food safety has improved since the 2009 outbreak that killed his father, and more since the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed in 2011. However, he said new regulations do not always bring about change.

"If you knowingly do something and send it out and then go to prison – that will make people think twice," said Tousignant. "It will come down to whether (Parnell) is convicted. I think this is definitely a step in the right direction."

Jeff Almer, whose mother died after eating contaminated peanut butter, said he was “ecstatic” by the latest news. “I would equate it to wishing for something to happen more than anything else you ever wanted in life, and waiting years for it to occur.”

“This has been my life's mission for the last four years since my mom died - to try to get some justice,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

If convicted of their crimes, the former PCA owners and employees face penalties of up to 20 years in jail.

However, Michael Moore, US Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia said actual jail sentences will likely be on the lower end of that spectrum. He said he expects those charged to appear in court within a week.

A fifth employee, Daniel Kilgore, has previously pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud and to the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. He waived an official indictment.