Peanut executives indicted over salmonella outbreak

DOJ alleges Peanut Corporation of America executives' actions mislead its customers and FDA officials in food safety outbreak.

It has been over three years since the salmonella outbreak at non defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) caused the enormous recall of 2,100 products from 200 different companies and suspected nine deaths and hundreds of illnesses. Last week a 76-count indictment was brought against four former officials of PCA and a related company related 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 the violations could result in up to 43 years in prison, as well as monetary fines.

"When food or drug manufacturers lie and cut corners, they put all of us at risk. 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," said Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Division. "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 was a peanut roasting facility where PCA 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 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. As alleged in the indictment, those customers ranged in size from small, family-owned businesses to global, multibillion-dollar food companies.

As alleged in the indictment, three of the defendants — Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, and Lightsey — engaged in a multi-year conspiracy to hide the fact that many of PCA’s products were tainted with salmonella. As alleged in the charging documents, on several occasions the four defendants participated in a scheme to fabricate certificates of analysis (COAs) stating that shipments of peanut products were free of pathogens when, in fact, there had been no tests 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 FDA inspectors' questions.

"FDA has a right to get honest answers," Delery said in a press briefing. He said the criminal actions taken help ensure that in the future other food executives "understand the consequences of lying to the FDA."

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