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One Year Later, Still no Charges for PCA

The first anniversary since people started getting sick with Salmonella Typhimurium from peanut products was marked by a national news service trying to find out what happened to the expected criminal prosecution of the now bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and its officers.

But that report did not yield much new, mostly because nobody is talking.

peanuts-featured.jpgIt was one year ago Tuesday that the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention’s (CDC) PulseNet identified the first multistate cluster of Salmonella Typhimurium with the DNA fingerprint that would come to be associated with a Blakely, GA-based peanut processing plant owned by PCA.  People had started getting sick a few days earlier.

By the time the outbreak was extinguished five months later, nine people were dead and 714 were sickened in 46 states with more than 100 hospitalized.  Almost 4,000 products containing PCA peanuts were subjected to recalls costing, according to industry estimates, more than $1 billion.

The Virginia-based PCA often communicated electronically with the managers of its peanut processing plants in Blakely, GA and Plainview, TX.  When tests of its peanuts came back positive for Salmonella, some of that traffic was potentially incriminating. 

E-mails obtained by the powerful U.S. House Commerce & Energy Committee showed PCA President Stewart Parnell’s orders regarding the contaminated peanuts were to “turn them loose.” He said PCA “desperately” needed the money.

Last spring, Parnell invoked his right not to testify before Congress, citing the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects one against self-incrimination.   However, the families of many of the victims of the outbreak, including some who lost loved ones, heard the evidence that was presented to the Committee and expected that criminal prosecution would be forthcoming.

A year after the outbreak, however, neither federal prosecutors nor Parnell are talking. And the news service reported that companies that poison their customers with food are rarely prosecuted.

One of the exceptions to that rule was Odwalla Inc., which admitted to 16 federal misdemeanor charges and paid a $1.5 million criminal penalty for selling contaminated apple juice in 1996.  It caused an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that killed a Colorado girl and sickened 66 others.  Another was the $200,000 fine and $3 million contribution to food safety research that Sara Lee Corp. agreed to after pleading guilty misdemeanor charges after meat contaminated with listeria that it sold killed 15.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg did tell a U.S. Senate Committee recently that the PCA criminal investigation remains active.

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