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PCA officials indicted in salmonella outbreak

By Joe Whitworth , 21-Feb-2013

Four former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) have been indicted on charges relating to the contamination of peanuts with salmonella in 2009, according to the US Justice Department.

Allegations include mail and wire fraud, introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy, said the department.

The 76-count indictment named Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell, Samuel Lightsey, plant operations manager and Mary Wilkerson who held a number of positions including plant quality assurance manager.

The documents charge that Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in a scheme to manufacture and ship salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products, and in so doing misled PCA customers, said the Justice Department.

Salmonella outbreak

PCA was linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009 in which more than 700 people became ill and nine died in more than 40 states after one of the biggest recalls in history.

The company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009.

The investigation began in 2009, after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracing a national outbreak of salmonella to a PCA plant in Blakely producing peanuts and peanut products.

“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,” said Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Division.

“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.”

The charging documents allege the firm participated in schemes by which they defrauded customers about the quality and purity of their peanut products and specifically misled customers about the existence of foodborne pathogens, most notably salmonella, in the peanut products PCA sold to them, said the Department of Justice.

CSPI view

A statement from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said the behaviour of the Peanut Corporation of America in 2009 clearly warranted criminal prosecution. 

David Plunkett, CSPI senior food safety attorney, said  corporate disregard for food safety is a serious crime, especially when it leads to deaths.

"We are pleased that the Department of Justice has indicted this company's former owner and other former PCA officials.

"[The] indictment should send a powerful signal to food industry officials that they and their companies could suffer severe consequences if they recklessy put consumers at risk of a foodborne illness."

Defence statement

In a statement from Bill Gust and Tom Bondurant of Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore, LLP, who are lawyers representing Stewart Parnell, they said they are "disappointed" that the Government has decided to pursue an indictment against Parnell on charges stemming from the operation of PCA.

"There is little doubt that as the facts in this case are revealed, it will become apparent that the FDA was in regular contact with PCA about its food handling policy and was well aware of its salmonella testing protocols. 

"Representatives of State and Federal agencies made regular visits to the PCA facility in Georgia over the years and months prior to the salmonella outbreak and such agencies were aware of and made no objections to the testing policies or protocols in place," said the statement.

"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 intentionally caused to be shipped any tainted food products capable of harming PCA's customers."

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