Peanut Executive Takes the Fifth
Lawmakers Question Firm's President

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.

The death toll from the contamination rose to nine yesterday as health officials linked the death of an Ohio woman to the outbreak, which has sickened at least 600 people since September.

For two hours, lawmakers heard from victims of the salmonella illness. Jeff Almer said his 72-year-old mother, Shirley, survived two bouts with cancer only to die in December after being served peanut butter on toast in a Minnesota nursing home.

"Cancer couldn't claim her, but peanut butter did," Almer said. "I want to see jail time, and I want to see them served the putrid sludge they've been serving out."

Peter Hurley, an Oregon police officer, appeared with his 3-year-old son, Jacob, who was diagnosed with salmonella illness in January after he developed bloody diarrhea and was vomiting. To get Jacob to eat, the family's pediatrician told the Hurleys to feed him his favorite food -- Austin toasty crackers with peanut butter.

"Here we have a boy trying to get over food poisoning," Hurley said, ". . . eating the exact food that is poisoning him."

By the time the state's epidemiologist figured out the link and showed up at the Hurley home on a Saturday evening to take the crackers and test them, Jacob's illness had grown severe. The little boy, who wore a white dress shirt and tie and bounced near the witness table yesterday, has since recovered. But his family remains shaken.

"This was not an accident," Hurley said. "Does no one have a conscience anymore?"

The victims spoke with spite not just for Parnell but also for the government.

"We should not be sitting here before you," said Marshall Tousignant, whose 78-year-old father, Clifford, died after eating tainted peanut butter in a Minnesota nursing home. Tousignant struggled to maintain his composure as a slide show of family photos featuring his father was flashed on a screen. "Why has this been allowed to happen?"

Several lawmakers asked the same of state and federal regulators.

"Either you don't have the resources or you're incompetent -- which is it?" Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) asked Stephen Sundlof of the Food and Drug Administration. Dingell is the sponsor of one of several bills pending to reform the FDA and improve food safety.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said Congress shares blame, too. "I am so sorry that your government failed you," she said. "There is simply no excuse that we can offer you that contaminated or unsafe food made it all the way to consumers and your table. I want to reassure you: We will act to make your families safer from this kind of potential killer."

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