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Letter From The Editor: Justice

Last April I was with the civil plaintiff attorneys and their experts who were working for the victims of the Peanut Corporation of America tragedy when we were all allowed into those PCA peanut-processing plants in Plainview, TX and Blakely, GA.

It remains on my mind.   Much, if not most, of the peanut processing equipment was old and kind of greasy.  Peanuts prohibited from shipment filled the warehouse areas.  What really intrigued me were the offices.  It was like people had just stepped away from their desks.

What was it like to work at PCA, especially to be a manager there?  Who knew the peanut butter and peanut paste they were shipping could kill?  Did they get the order to ship product contaminated with Salmonella on that phone?

We thought then–and we still hope now–that some of these details would be filled in by the federal criminal investigation of PCA and its management, especially Stewart Parnell, the chief executive.

Parnell took the Fifth when brought before the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, but the email traffic between PCA headquarters in Lynchburg, VA and the processing plant in Blakely, GA seemed to tell the story.

The peanuts were poison and they were knowingly put into interstate commerce. Or so it seemed.  One thing was certain, they were responsible for a nationwide Salmonella outbreak that sickened 700 and killed nine.  If this does not amount to a criminal offense, what does?

That’s why the victims of the PCA Salmonella outbreak feel so outraged.  More than a year has passed and nobody in the federal criminal establishment has had a single word for them.  The people who were hurt and the families of those who were killed are from every corner of the United States.  They are ordinary tax-paying Americans.  They are just looking for a little justice.

Very little is known about the federal criminal investigation.  We know this because the Federal Bureau of Investigation told us that the Office of Criminal Investigations of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, not the FBI, is in charge of the investigation.

Because she testified under oath before the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, we know FDA Commissioner Hamburg thinks her OCI is still on the case.   And, we know PCA executives are contesting the proceeds from a company insurance policy because they all say they need money to pay for their criminal defenses.

Going through the FDA/OCI route, everyone gets directed to one place–the U.S. District Attorney’s office for the Central District of Georgia.  There it ends, with a pleasant spokesman for the District Attorney neither confirming nor denying the investigation even exists.

In fact, there is no U.S. District Attorney for the Central District of Georgia.  Since last July, G.F. “Pete” Peterman has been the acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.

Peterman, an assistant district attorney since 1990, appears to be the kind of guy who isn’t holding back just because he is acting in the job.  He spent December prosecuting armed robbers and drug dealers and took on the Georgia State Board of Regents along the way.

In mid-September, President Obama nominated Georgia State Sen. Michael J. Moore, D-Warner Robins for U.S. District Attorney for the Middle District.  But something appears to be holding that up.  Some paperwork got lost.   The Senate Judiciary Committee still has not moved on Sen. Moore’s confirmation.

And maybe it does not make any difference.  Maybe in the end, it will be an assistant U.S. District Attorney experienced in criminal prosecution who will handle all of this.  And everyone including Mr. Parnell is innocent until a jury decides otherwise.  Our concern is that this whole thing is unfinished.

We wish we could find that one person in the system that would step forward and provide justice for the victims of PCA, but so far, we have not been able to do so.

© Food Safety News