The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday announced a 76-count indictment has been filed charging four former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and a related company for selling Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter products blamed for a nationwide Salmonella outbreak in 2009 that killed 9 people and sickened more than 700.
Former PCA owner and president Stewart Parnell, of Lynchburg, VA, and three other former company leaders, 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, according to the Department of Justice. Stewart Parnell and two others were also charged with obstruction of justice.
Family members of the victims were thrilled with the news of the felony charges, which many of them had been seeking for years.
“Words can’t give this news justice. Let’s hope the federal court system does, though!” said Jeff Almer, whose mother, Shirley Almer, lost her life to Salmonella after eating contaminated product made by PCA. Almer has since become an outspoken advocate for stronger food safety laws and urged DOJ to actively pursue criminal charges.
“I’m still trying to pick my chin up off the floor. After four years without a comment [from investigators], finally we have something,” said Randy Napier, who also lost his mother, Nellie Napier, in the outbreak.
“I don’t wish ill on anyone, but there are consequences to every action you take,” Napier continued. “Unfortunately, they took actions that hurt a lot of people — hundreds in the hospital and 9 deaths. That was their action, and now comes the reaction.”
In a White House press release, DOJ said charges against former PCA operations manager Daniel Kilgore, of Blakely, GA, was unsealed and that he pleaded guilty to charges of mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.
The investigation into the activity at PCA began in 2009, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a national outbreak of Salmonella to a PCA plant in Blakely. As alleged in the indictment, the 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.
In company emails obtained through investigation, Parnell allegedly ordered the shipment and sale of products known to be contaminated with Salmonella. When other lots of peanuts tested positive for Salmonella, he ordered them to be retested.
On February 11, 2009, Parnell sat before U.S. representatives at a hearing on the outbreak hosted by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. To each question posed by the Congress members, he and former PCA plant manager Sammy Lightsey invoked their Fifth Amendment rights to not incriminate themselves. At one point, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden brandished a container full of grocery products featuring PCA peanuts and asked the men to sample something. They declined.
“These indictments will have a far reaching impact on the food industry,” said attorney Bill Marler, who represented hundreds of individuals in claims against PCA and whose law firm, Marler Clark, underwrites Food Safety News. “Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters the stream of commerce. Felony counts like this one are rare, but misdemeanor charges that can include fines and jail time can and should happen.”
Family members of other victims expressed feelings of surprise and relief to Food Safety News. Lou Tousignant’s father Clifford Tousignant died as a result of medical complications after eating peanut butter sandwiches from a PCA customer. When he heard the news Thursday morning, he said that his and other families might finally see something positive lesson come out of the last four years of pain.
“We can pass all the regulations we want,” Tousignant said, “but I think most manufacturers are willing to take a risk if all they have to do is write a check for a fine – it can be seen as part of doing business. But when you have a potential criminal charge and jail time that comes from those decisions, that changes the game.”
“When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk,” said Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “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.”
“We all place a great deal of trust in the companies and individuals who prepare and package our food, often times taking it for granted that the public’s health and safety interests will outweigh individual and corporate greed,” said Michael Moore, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. “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. This investigation was complex and extensive, and I credit the cooperation of our federal agencies with not only making sure that the cause of this outbreak was uncovered and the people responsible called to account, but also with working hard every day to make sure that parents across the country can feel confident that the food they are feeding their children is safe.”
The PCA indictment can be viewed here.
Kilgore’s filed information can be viewed here.
Editor’s note: The Almer and Tousignant families were represented by law firm Marler Clark LLP, underwriter of Food Safety News.© Food Safety News