Peanut Executive Takes the Fifth

A Congressional House Committee began looking into a salmonella outbreak at the Peanut Corporation of America Wednesday, however the owner of the company has refused to testify. Video by AP
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009

As salmonella illness began spreading across the country last fall, the owner of a Georgia peanut plant that was causing the outbreak railed against the cost and delays that the contamination was causing his businesses, according to internal company documents obtained by Congress.

Stewart Parnell, president of Peanut Corporation of America, also pressed federal regulators to allow him to continue using peanuts from the tainted plant and shipped contaminated products to customers with a homemade certificate that falsely attested to their purity, according to e-mails and memos made public yesterday at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Parnell, whose Virginia-based company is at the center of a massive food-contamination scandal and a federal criminal investigation, was compelled by subpoena to appear before lawmakers but refused to answer questions.

The e-mails and records also show how Parnell repeatedly tried to get around internal laboratory tests that showed salmonella contamination by sending the samples to a different laboratory for new tests. When confronted with a positive reading for salmonella in October, instead of destroying the tainted product -- a standard industry response -- Parnell sent it to a different lab and then complained about the delay.

"The time lapse, besides the cost is costing us huge $$$$$," Parnell wrote in an October e-mail to plant manager Sammy Lightsey.

In another e-mail between Parnell and Lightsey, the manager reported that samples from the plant taken on Aug. 11 had tested positive for salmonella but had been sent to another laboratory and received a negative result. "Okay, let's turn them loose then," Parnell wrote.

Federal regulators at the hearing called Parnell's actions "unconscionable"; several lawmakers called them criminal.

"This is a company that cared more about the financial bottom line than it did about the safety of its customers," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee chairman.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) held up a large jar wrapped in yellow police tape stamped "Caution" and filled with some of the 1,900 peanut products that have been recalled as a result of the contamination. "I'm going to ask Mr. Parnell if he'd like to open this and sample some of the products that he thought it was okay for others to eat," Walden said.

Parnell, who showed no emotion, did not respond to Walden's invitation. Instead, he repeated the only line he spoke at the hearing: "Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution."

Until last Thursday, Parnell served on an Agriculture Department advisory board on peanut quality.

The committee dismissed Parnell yesterday after it was clear he would not answer its questions. As he left the hearing room, he was tracked for blocks by a swarm of reporters shouting questions.

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