Former owner of Virginia peanut company faces charges in salmonella case

Kevin Clark/THE WASHINGTON POST - In this file photo, Stewart Parnell, former president of Peanut Corp. of America, leaves a House panel hearing on a salmonella outbreak blamed on his company.

On March 21, 2007, the owner of Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America seemed impatient.

Informed that a customer’s shipment might be delayed because the results of a salmonella test were not yet available, Stewart Parnell decided not to wait.

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“S---, just ship it,” he wrote in an e-mail, according to a newly released federal indictment. “I can’t afford to loose [sic] another customer.”

The company billed itself as “The Processor of the World’s Finest Peanut Products” with a “remarkable food-safety record.” In reality, its products had tested positive for salmonella contamination half a dozen times in recent years, and Parnell himself had given the green light to shipments despite containers that were partially “covered in dust and rat crap,” according to court documents.

PCA’s shipments kept heading out the door to customers across the country, from small family-owned businesses to multinational food corporations. The company’s products ended up in ice cream, snack crackers, dog biscuits and peanut butter.

They also triggered a nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009 that investigators say sickened hundreds of people and killed nine others, largely because of recklessness on the part of company officials and abysmal conditions at a plant in Blakely, Ga.

On Thursday, four years after that deadly episode, the government indicted Parnell and three other former employees at the now-defunct company on criminal fraud charges.

Parnell, 58, faces charges of mail and wire fraud, shipping adulterated and misbranded food across state lines, and obstruction of justice. Other former officials of the Lynchburg-based company facing fraud and conspiracy charges include Michael Parnell, 54, of Virginia, Parnell’s brother and a former company supervisor, and plant operator Samuel Lightsey, 48, of Georgia. A former quality-assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, 39, of Georgia was included in the obstruction-of-justice charges. Authorities said another former employee, Daniel Kilgore, 44, also of Georgia, waived a formal indictment and pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud, among other charges.

A 76-count indictment filed in a Georgia federal court asserts that the officials conspired to mislead customers about unsanitary factory conditions and the existence of harmful pathogens in the company’s products. In addition, investigators say they fabricated lab test results, lied to government inspectors and deliberately shipped products contaminated with salmonella throughout the country.

“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 F. Delery, head of the Justice Department’s civil division, said Thursday in announcing the indictments. ‘‘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.’’

Attorneys for Parnell, who, like the other defendants, is expected to appear in Georgia federal court soon, said in a statement on their Web site that they would “prepare for a vigorous defense.” They said state and federal officials had made regular visits to the Georgia facility over the years and had “made no objections” to the company’s testing policies.

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

As the salmonella outbreak deepened in late 2008 and early 2009, inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration visited PCA’s Blakely plant several times and discovered a host of unsanitary conditions. Among them: the presence of mold and roaches, dirty equipment, holes big enough to allow rodents inside, and a failure to separate raw and cooked products. The FDA also determined that the company had knowingly shipped products contaminated with salmonella a dozen times in 2007 and 2008.

The result was one of the largest recalls in the nation’s history. The company eventually recalled everything it had produced since 2007, but not before the outbreak had sickened an estimated 714 people and contributed to a total of nine deaths in Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In February 2009, Stewart Parnell was summoned to a hearing on Capitol Hill to testify about the deadly outbreak. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to each question. The company eventually went bankrupt.

The episode also hastened a push from the Obama administration to overhaul the nation’s food safety system.

“At bare minimum, we should be able to count on our government keeping our kids safe when they eat peanut butter,” President Obama said during an interview on the “Today” show in early 2009. “That’s what Sasha eats for lunch probably three times a week. And, you know, I don’t want to have to worry about whether she’s going to get sick as a consequence of having her lunch.”

In late 2010, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, aimed in part of imposing strict sanitation standards in food production facilities.

Some of those who lost family members as a result of the outbreak said Thursday’s indictments brought a mix of emotions, but mostly relief.

“I’ve probably never wished for anything to happen more in my life,” said Jeff Almer of Minnesota, whose 72-year-old mother died in December 2008 after eating peanut butter. “Nothing can bring her back, but there need to be repercussions. I don’t think what they get will equal justice, but it sends a message to other producers out there.”

Lou Tousignant shares that sentiment. His 78-year-old father survived the Korean War with three Purple Hearts but died in early 2009 after eating peanut butter at an assisted-living facility in Minnesota. Tousignant’s family received a settlement from the company but said the criminal indictment was more satisfying — and more important.

“A fine is one thing; it’s the cost of doing business, it’s a check. But when you become criminally liable, I think that changes the game,” Tousignant said. “To me, this is the one thing that can really provide some teeth and hopefully change some behavior in the future. If there’s one positive that can come out of this, it’s that we can hopefully save someone else.”

 
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