US charges four in peanut butter salmonella outbreak.


ABC World News (2/21, story 7, 0:30, Sawyer, 7.43M) reported, “The deadly peanut butter, the salmonella outbreak of 2009? Nine people died, hundreds were sickened. Well, today, criminal charges were brought against four former employees of the peanut company and processing plant. The plant where the FDA found mold and roaches. They are accused of covering up possible contamination over a period of six years.”

The AP (2/22, Jalonick, Brumback) reports, “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 AP continues, “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.'”

USA Today (2/21, Johnson, Weise, 1.71M) reports, “The charges cap an inquiry that began in 2009 after the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control traced a national outbreak of salmonella to a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Ga. The plant operated as a roasting facility where PCA produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste, which were sold to customers around the country. Named in the indictment: brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell, former PCA president and vice president; Samuel Lightsey, plant operations manager; and Mary Wilkerson, plant quality assurance manager. The Parnell brothers and Lightsey have been charged with conspiracy mail and wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson also were charged with obstruction of justice.”

The Wall Street Journal (2/22, A2, Kendall, Barrett, Subscription Publication, 2.29M) reports that although criminal prosecutions in food-poisoning cases are rare, at least two other Federal probes of separate outbreaks are underway.

The Washington Post (2/22, Dennis, 489K) reports, “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. '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 Post continues, “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.”

The Los Angeles Times (2/21, Hsu, 692K) reports, “Peanut butter, roasted peanuts and other items prepared at PCA's Blakely, Ga. plant were linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 700 people across 46 states and may have contributed to nine deaths. One of the largest food-based recalls in history resulted, affecting thousands of products made since 2007, including cookies, cereal and even pet treats, according to the Food and Drug Administration. This week's indictment pins much of the blame on four former PCA officials, accusing them of engaging 'in multiple schemes to defraud the company's customers.'”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2/22, Bluestein, 263K) reports, “Stewart Parnell has remained tightlipped throughout the probe. He repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself in 2009 when summoned to testify by a congressional subpoena.” The AJC continues, “Prosecutions in tainted food cases are fairly rare, and they generally lead to fines against companies rather than jail time or other punishments for individuals. But U.S. Attorney Michael Moore said the 'complex and extensive' nature of the investigation didn't yield quick results. 'Unfortunately and as alleged in the indictment, 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,' he said.”

AFP (2/22) reports, “PCA filed for bankruptcy within months of the outbreak after being forced to shut its plants. Meanwhile on Thursday the Food and Drug Administration recalled pet treats manufactured by Kasel Associates Industries for potential salmonella contamination. The FDA said its inspections had found more than 10 different salmonella species in the company's products and facilities.”

Bloomberg News (2/22, Schoenberg, Mattingly) reports, “Prosecutors said that even when laboratory testing revealed the presence of salmonella in products at the Blakely facility, the conspirators failed to alert their customers. They also fabricated documents that showed the products were free of pathogens when no tests had been conducted or lab results tested positive for salmonella, according to the indictment. Wilkerson, along with Stewart Parnell and Lightsey, are accused of trying to mislead inspectors from the FDA Administration who visited the plant on multiple occasions while investigating the salmonella outbreak.” Bloomberg notes, “Lawyers for Stewart Parnell said as the case develops '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.' It will also be clear that Parnell 'never intentionally shipped or intentionally caused to be shipped any tainted food products capable of harming PCA's customers,' according to a statement from Tom Bondurant and William Gust of Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore LLP.”

The National Law Journal (2/22, Scarcella) reports, “Consumer safety officials and federal prosecutors want to make this clear: lying to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspector is a crime. U.S. Justice Department and FDA officials on February 21 trumpeted obstruction of justice charges in announcing criminal allegations rooted in the salmonella outbreak of tainted peanut products in 2009 that sickened hundreds of people across the country. Big-firm lawyers with FDA practice groups noted the 'striking' allegations levied in the case, including the federal charges against several individual executives.”

ABC News (2/22, Stark) reports on its website, “Randy Napier has waited four years for the news he got today, that criminal charges have been filed against executives and top employees of the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America. Napier's 80-year old mother died after eating salmonella contaminated peanut butter traced back to one of PCA's plants. 'I am absolutely ecstatic,' Napier told ABC News. 'I was afraid this day would never get here, so I am extremely happy.'”

The Chicago Tribune (2/22, 450K) , NPR (2/21, Charles, Godoy) , Reuters (2/22, Ingram, Clarke), BBC News (2/22) and CNN (2/22) also report this story.