IT has been more than three years since a salmonella outbreak at the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) caused an enormous recall of 2,100 products from 200 different companies and possibly nine deaths and hundreds of illnesses.
Last week, a 76-count indictment was brought against four former officials of PCA and a related company due to the salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products.
Stewart Parnell, 58, of Lynchburg, Va.; Michael Parnell, 54, of Midlothian, Va., and Samuel Lightsey, 48, of Blakely, Ga., have been charged with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead and conspiracy. Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Mary Wilkerson, 39, of Edison, Ga., were also charged with obstruction of justice.
Michael Moore, U.S. attorney for the middle district of Georgia, explained that the violations could result in up to 43 years in prison as well as monetary fines.
John Roth, director of the Food & Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations, noted that criminal charges are the "far range of remedies" to ensure that the food supply is safe but added that it is not unprecedented. One of the few examples came in 2000, when the company then known as Sara Lee Foods pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge over selling adulterated meat and paid more than $4.4 million.
"When food or drug manufacturers lie and cut corners, they put all of us at risk," Stuart F. Delery, who heads the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Division, said. "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. Like the FDA, we pay close attention to food safety matters, and we are committed to using every tool at our disposal to protect Americans from unsafe foods."
PCA's Blakely plant roasted raw peanuts and produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste; PCA sold these peanut products to its customers around the country.
The charging documents say Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in a scheme to manufacture and ship salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products and, in doing so, misled PCA customers.
The indictment alleges that three of the defendants -- Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell and Lightsey -- engaged in a multiyear conspiracy to hide the fact that many of PCA's products were tainted with salmonella. The scheme included fabricating certificates of analysis stating that shipments of peanut products were free of pathogens when, in fact, no tests had been conducted on the products at all or when the laboratory results showed that a sample tested positive for salmonella.
The indictment said when FDA inspectors visited PCA's plant several times in January 2009, some of the defendants gave untrue or misleading answers to the inspectors' questions.
"FDA has a right to get honest answers," Delery said in a press briefing. He said the criminal charges taken help ensure that, in the future, other food executives "understand the consequences of lying to the FDA."
"We all place a great deal of trust in the companies and individuals who prepare and package our food, oftentimes taking it for granted that the public's health and safety interests will outweigh individual and corporate greed," Moore said. "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."