The former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) plant manager at Blakely, GA, told a federal criminal jury on Friday that PCA owner and chief executive Stewart Parnell ordered him to ship peanut products that tested positive for Salmonella. Samuel Lightsey also said that peanut broker Michael Parnell, Stewart Parnell’s brother, told him not to worry about false certificates of analysis (COAs) that were being prepared by PCA for Kellogg’s, a major customer.
Lightsey, who managed the plant until a Salmonella outbreak five years ago forced PCA into bankruptcy, also told the 12-member jury that Mary Wilkerson, the plant quality control manger, was not qualified for the job because she lacked the proper training.
His stark depictions of the Parnell brothers and Wilkerson came as no surprise. Lightsey was originally charged, along with the three other defendants, in a 76-count felony indictment for conspiracy and fraud, obstruction of justice, and shipment through interstate commerce of misbranded and adulterated food.
Before Lightsey began to testify on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands advised the jury that the witness had reason to make statements favorable to the government because of a plea agreement.
This past May, Lightsey pleaded guilty to seven felony counts charged in the February 2013 indictment. Under the agreement, numerous other charges were set aside, and the former plant manager will likely see a sentence reduction to no more than six years in prison, down from the 76-year maximum term he might have faced, plus $1.5 million in fines.
Lightsey told the jury that he decided to “do what is right and take responsibility ” for what he did. As the plant manager, he reported directly to owner and chief executive Stewart Parnell in Lynchburg, VA. However, he said Stewart Parnell was present at the Blakely, GA, plant about once a month and was involved on a day-to-day basis by phone and email.
According to Lightsey, Michael Parnell told him, “I can handle Kellogg’s. We’ve been shipping to them with false COAs since before you got here. I’ll handle Kellogg’s. Don’t worry about it.”
Peanut paste produced for Kellogg’s was not stored by PCA, but went immediately into tanker trucks and was shipped out immediately when full. Lightsey said that his mistake was allowing those shipments to continue with the phony COAs. He testified that he did not quit because he needed a job and thought that he could fix things if he remained in charge.
Lightsey said he never could have remained at PCA if he thought the practices could hurt someone. He said the fact that people did get hurt is why he pleaded guilty.
The outbreak of deadly Salmonella typhimurium traced back to the Blakely PCA plant five years ago eventually sickened more than 700 people, resulting in nine deaths. The outbreak investigation, ultimately headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, lasted more than four years before the 76-count indictment was finally unsealed.
Lightsey noted that, before coming to PCA, he’d worked in the industry for 20 years without seeing a positive Salmonella test for peanut products.
It was U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigator Janet Gray who was first on the scene and spent the longest time on the witness stand this week at the PCA trial.
Gray went to the PCA peanut processing plant in Blakely early in 2009 when King Nut peanut butter in Minnesota was found to be contaminated with deadly Salmonella typhimurium and the product was traced back to the Blakely PCA plant.
When she arrived, Gray said she got a walk-through at the Blakely facility with Lightsey, who told her PCA had only one “presumptive positive” for Salmonella. He said it was then sent to Deibel Laboratories and came back negative.
After the walk-through, Gray continued to head up FDA’s investigation into the nationwide outbreak. It was an investigation that came to focus on PCA peanut butter and peanut paste and products using those products as ingredients.
Gray said PCA was initially not willing to share the number of Salmonella tests the company had failed, but more test information came out as the investigation continued.
She told the 12-member jury that, had PCA been quicker to disclose test information, FDA’s investigation would have resulted in more effective product recalls.
Wilkerson could have been more transparent, according to Gray. The former quality control manager is charged with two felony counts of obstruction of justice.© Food Safety News