Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

PCA Trial Testimony Focuses on Salmonella Testing, Investigation

Two top officials of testing laboratories used by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official who led the investigation into the deadly Salmonella outbreak linked to the Blakely, GA, peanut processing plant offered up the first testimony in the federal trial now in its second week in Albany, GA.

On trial for felony charges involving fraud and conspiracy are three former executives of the now-defunct company, including former chief executive Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson, the quality control manager at the Blakely plant.

The government’s first witness against the three defendants was Dr. Darlene Cowart, food safety director for J. Leek Associates, who explained to the jury the process used in Salmonella testing. Cowart noted that J. Leek’s relationship with the Blakely PCA plant was a “laboratory relationship only.”

Scott Austin, one of the defense attorneys for Stewart Parnell, said that out of more than 3,500 tested samples of PCA products from 2007-08, only 12, or 0.33 percent, came back positive for Salmonella.

When asked if a food producer should throw out the entire product if a portion is contaminated with Salmonella, Cowart said they should. “You can’t take a risk with public health. Period,” she said.

Cowart confirmed that J. Leek Associates was dealing with a Salmonella problem at PCA’s Blakely facility.

Dr. Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories, followed Cowart on the witness stand. Deibel was the second lab PCA used for microbiological testing.

Deibel also testified that he was aware of a Salmonella problem at the PCA Blakely plant. He said he never visited the facility, but that he had contact with plant manager Samuel Lightsey about it.

Diebel said a plant with recurring Salmonella should be shut down until the problem can be addressed.

On cross-examination, Austin sought to impeach Diebel’s testimony with evidence that Deibel Laboratories itself had problems with FDA.

The defense attorney pointed the jury’s attention to a warning letter FDA sent to Deibel Laboratories about the lab’s failure to follow protocols. “Laboratory mechanisms have been violated,” the warning letter stated.

Deibel responded that the FDA warning related to pharmaceutical testing and not food safety.

The third person to testify was Janet Grey, who has worked for 24 years as an investigator and consumer safety officer for FDA’s Southeast Region based in Tifton, GA.

After Minnesota’s health and agriculture departments isolated a sample of King Nut peanut butter and matched it to the outbreak strain in January 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) traced it to PCA’s Blakely plant.

FDA then sent Grey in to investigate. She testified that Lightsey, the plant manager, told her that PCA’s own microbiological testing had only once returned a positive test for Salmonella.

Grey said Lightsey later acknowledged there were some additional positive Salmonella tests and suggested that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson knew more because they’d been working at PCA longer than he had.

Originally charged with the other three defendants, Lightsey reached a plea agreement with the government last May. In it, he agreed to plead guilty to seven felony counts in exchange for having his potential jail time capped at six years.

Lightsey pleaded guilty to: 1) conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud; 2) conspiracy to introduce adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud; 3) introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud; 4) introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud; 5) interstate shipments fraud; 6) wire fraud, and 7) obstruction of justice.

The FDA investigator confirmed that PCA shipped products before testing results were known, and that sometimes those results came back positive. She also shared pictures taken inside the Blakely plant during the investigation showing mold, leaks in the roof, and unsanitary conditions.

‘Non-Parties’ Challenge Government Request to Review Documents

Outside the earshot of the jury, there’s another chapter of the PCA litigation that’s being fought out between government prosecutors and another set of attorneys who have yet to be seen in the courtroom.

They are referred to as the “Non-Parties” and are lawyers and law firms that at one time or another represented PCA in its regular business dealings before the company met its demise in the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak.

Shortly before the trial began, the prosecution subpoenaed PCA’s former lawyers and even offered the services of a Department of Justice (DOJ) “taint” attorney to review documents for any reasons they might be excluded such as lawyer-client or work product privilege.

Three of these “Non-Parties” — Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Bunn & Dial, LLC, Meagher and Geer, PLLP, and attorney Lanae Pederson — have moved to quash the government’s motion for In Camera Privilege document review by the court.

Atlanta-based Weinberg, Wheeler claims it is part of the joint defense agreement involving defendants Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson, along with all of their defense attorneys. Meagher and Geer and Pederson claim the government’s request is “unduly burdensome.”

Government prosecutors have told the former PCA business lawyers that the scope of the requested document production should involve recorded statements, reports, notes, and emails from PCA employees to any of the defendants. It says it has limited the request to documents involving the defendants to make it less burdensome.

“The case is currently in a criminal jury trial for which the Government seeks the documents described above,” DOJ attorney Patrick H. Hearn writes in a motion asking the court to approve the requested in-camera review. “The Government, would, respectfully, request an expedited review of the non-parties Motion to Quash and the Government’s Response and, should the Court production of the requested documents for in camera review, production of the requested documents to the Court.”

© Food Safety News
  • Excellent recap. And thanks for the additional legal aside.

  • Celeste Rothstein

    I’m curious. If people died from the salmonella-contaminated nuts these individuals knowingly sold to the public, why are they not being charged with involuntary manslaughter?

    • Tired of the Anger

      Because “corporations are people” only applies to when it benefits the corporations.