4 Charged In Peanut Butter Salmonella Outbreak

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WASHINGTON
(AP) — Four former peanut company employees have been charged with
scheming to manufacture and ship salmonella-tainted peanuts that killed
nine, sickened hundreds and prompted one of the largest recalls in
history.

The indictment by a federal grand
jury in Georgia is a rare move by the federal government in food
poisoning cases. Justice Department officials said Thursday that the
charges stemming from the 2009 outbreak serve as a warning to food
manufacturers who may compromise consumer safety in search of higher
profits.

“When food or drug manufacturers lie
and cut corners, they put all of us at risk,” Stuart F. Delery, who
heads the Justice Department's Civil Division, said at a news
conference. “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
76-count indictment was unsealed late Wednesday in federal court in
Albany, Ga. It accuses Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart
Parnell, his brother Michael Parnell and Georgia plant manager Samuel
Lightsey with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of
adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the
intent to defraud or mislead. Michael Parnell was a food broker who
worked with the company.

Stewart Parnell,
Lightsey and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson were also charged
with obstruction of justice. The conspiracy and obstruction of justice
charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.

The Justice Department said a fifth employee had pleaded guilty to similar charges in a separate case.

Criminal
charges are rare in food outbreak cases because intentional
adulteration is often hard to prove and companies often step up and
acknowledge their mistakes. Widespread outbreaks like the salmonella in
peanuts are becoming more common as food companies ship all over the
country and the world.

Investigations are
pending into two other large outbreaks in recent years – an outbreak of
salmonella in eggs in 2010 and an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe in
2011 that was linked to more than 30 deaths.

Bill
Marler, an attorney who represented many of the victims in the peanut
case, has specialized in food safety law for 20 years. He says this is
the first time he can remember such a scathing indictment on a food
poisoning case.

“If I were an executive of a company, today I'd be asking my lawyers, `How does this not happen to me?'” Marler said.

The
conditions at Peanut Corporation of America – and the employees'
alleged attempts to conceal them – appear more pronounced than most.
Food and Drug Administration inspectors found remarkably bad conditions
inside the processing plant in Blakely, Ga., including mold, roaches and
a leaky roof. According to e-mail uncovered by congressional
investigators shortly after the outbreak, Parnell, who invoked the Fifth
Amendment to avoid testifying before Congress in February 2009, once
directed employees to “turn them loose” after samples of peanuts had
tested positive for salmonella and were then cleared in another test.

The
indictment says the company misled its customers about the existence of
salmonella in its product, even when lab tests showed it was present.
It says the co-workers even fabricated certificates accompanying some of
the peanut shipments saying they were safe when tests said otherwise.

According
to the indictment, Peanut Corp. included Mexican and Argentine peanut
paste in products shipped to a multinational food products company in
Battle Creek, Mich., but said it was all from the United States. The
indictment does not name the company, but Kellogg's is based in Battle
Creek and Kellogg's Austin and Keebler peanut butter sandwich crackers
were part of the massive recall.

The
indictment also says Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson gave untrue
or misleading statements to FDA investigators who visited the plant as
the outbreak was unfolding, leading to the obstruction of justice
charges.

Parnell's attorneys said in a
statement after the indictment was unsealed that they are disappointed
that the government has decided to pursue the case after four years and
charged that the FDA knew about the company's salmonella testing and had
not objected.

“At this point, we will
evaluate the charges that have been filed against Mr. Parnell and will
prepare for a vigorous defense,” said attorneys Bill Gust and Tom
Bondurant. “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 (Peanut Corporation of America) about its food handling policy and
was well aware of its salmonella testing protocols.”

Parnell himself said more than two years ago that he wanted the criminal investigation resolved one way or another.

“I
feel like I wish they'd come on and do what they're going to do,”
Parnell told The Associated Press in 2010. “I'd like to get this behind
me.”

At the time of that interview, Parnell
had returned to the industry as a consultant brokering peanut equipment
sales, angering families who were hoping he would be charged. It is
unclear if he has still been doing that consulting.

Jim Parkman, a lawyer for Lightsey, said nothing in the indictment surprises him and he is eager to defend his client.

“I'm
glad it finally came out so we can get this cleared up and clear
Sammy's name,” he said. “We look forward to getting to a trial where we
can finish the story.”

More than 700 illnesses
in 46 states were linked to the outbreak, though the actual number of
victims is likely much higher. The company shipped to many large and
small companies around the country, and around 3,500 products were
recalled.

Families of the victims had been pushing the government for four years to hold Parnell and the others responsible.

Randy
Napier's mother died in 2009 after eating peanut butter at an assisted
living facility in Ohio. Along with other victims' families, he has kept
in touch with the Justice Department and pressured them to bring
charges.

“I had begun to give up hope,” Napier
said after learning of the indictment. “It's hard to put into words.
We have waited so long for this.”

Michael
Moore, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said the probe
took so many years to complete because the defendants attempted to
conceal their actions and because thousands of documents had to be
reviewed.

“These defendants cared less about
the quality of the food they were providing to the American people and
more about the quantity of money they were gathering while disregarding
food safety,” Moore said.

A federal judge in 2010 approved a $12 million insurance settlement for more than 100 salmonella victims.

Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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