Four years ago, the people who ran Peanut Corporation of America were not accused felons, but pillars of the “Peanut Proud” town of Blakely, Georgia.
When products PCA produced in Blakely were connected to the rapidly growing outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium, I jumped on a plane to Atlanta and turned my rental car south at Hartsfield without ever going into the city.
At Blakely, I thought I died and ended up in Sparta, Mississippi, the fictional setting for “In the Heat of the Night,” especially Carol O’Connor’s television version. Blakely is a classic southern town, complete with town square, and last flagpole standing to have flown the Stars and Bars of the old Confederacy.
But it’s mainly about peanuts, A nearly 60-year old monument to peanuts stands in the town square, and thousands annually celebrate the “Peanut Proud” festival. The cute little peanut wagons used during harvest are parked about the land in strategic locations.
The PCA building was located on Highway 62 East, maybe three or four miles from the Blakely square. When I arrived, I found it guarded by some uniformed Early County sheriff’s deputies and at least a couple of others in plain clothes.
I was “invited” to park my rental car across the “Arlington Highway” where there were already a half dozen television satellite trucks that had come down from Atlanta, and up from Miami.
These kind of stand-offs have a certain amount of drama and interest. Clearly none of us media types were going to directly challenge the deputies. None of them were named “Bubba,” and all were polite, well-trained, and professional.
So for a while, I amused myself talking to the guys who make their livings doing what they do inside TV satellite trucks. They are funny guys and they spend a lot of time waiting, so they know how to handle it.
But patience has never been one of my strengths, especially since I was neither waiting for uplink times nor an on-air news “babe” – of either sex – to arrive. So I got back into to my rental car, drove to the nearest intersection and turned left. Shortly that road crossed some railroad tracks. I decided to take a risk. I pulled over and parked.
I put on my hiking boots, grabbed my camera and jacket and headed for the right of way of the Southern Railroad. The heavily used branch line ran parallel to Highway 62 but well behind PCA. The area between PCA’s building and the tracks where I was walking was heavily wooded, but I was counting on finding a spur line serving the property.
After about a mile — luckily with no traffic on the rails — I found an all-but-grown-over spur line going directly into the back of the PCA property. I began to creep down the spur line toward PCA’s backdoor.
Out front I knew there were still well armed deputies with their cars and coffee. I really did not know what happened to those plainclothes guys. I was hoping they were in the offices having some laughs with the PCA executives because I was crawling onto their property from behind.
In my mind at this point was the “Dueling Banjos” music from Deliverance and I was thinking that I didn’t really know how to “squeal like a pig.” I felt a lot better when I cleared the woods and could explore PCA’s backyard. I was fairly certain none of the deputies were on the prowl and I could not be seen from inside the building.
By exploring PCA’s backyard, I learned for the first time that the company was selling peanut butter in bulk. At that point I did not know about peanut paste. I did not know then what we know now. Those tanker trucks of peanut paste were going to Kellogg’s in Battle Creek as an ingredient for popular products like Keebler crackers.
A year or so later, I got inside the PCA plants in both Plainview, TX and Blakely. That was when the federal bankruptcy court opened them for inspection by experts for the plaintiffs suing PCA for the illnesses and deaths from the outbreak it caused. In both Texas and Georgia, being inside the PCA facilities left me feeling like I was inside a machine shop — not anything like a food processing facility.
On that first visit to PCA in Blakely, I just creeped away and re-traced my steps back down the tracks to my rental car. I was not spotted.
Four years later, Stewart Parnell of Lynchburg, VA; Michael Parnell of Midlothian, VA; Samuel Lightsey of Blakely, GA; and Mary Wilkerson of Edison, GA are named in a 76-count indictment unsealed by the U.S Court for the Middle District of Georgia.
Along with Daniel Kilgore, who pleaded guilty to the same charges Feb. 11, the four PCA executives face charges that largely involved conspiracy and fraud, federal felonies that — if convicted — will mean substantial jail time.
If federal prosecutors are successful, PCA may have lasting influence on the way criminal statutes are applied to food industry executives who recklessly disregard their responsibilities for food safety. That would mean the PCA outbreak is one of the most influential in history, in that it is already viewed as one of the most critical events in the lead-up to Congress passing the Food Safety Modernization Act in late 2010.
And finally, there is the role played by the families of those killed and injured in the PCA outbreak. These families did more than anyone to keep pressure on for federal criminal action. Four years is a long time to keep up that sort of pressure and they deserve credit for doing so.
Each of those folks may have their reasons for doing so. We might call it the need for closure. But it fulfills the need we all have for justice.© Food Safety News