Header graphic for print

Food Safety News

Breaking news for everyone's consumption

Praise for an Unlikely ‘Whistleblower’

Opinion

Kenneth Kendrick, missing Monday from the federal courthouse in Albany, GA, did not hear the praise that came from a witness during a pivotal day in the world of food safety.

Kendrick is a former assistant plant manager of the Plainview, Texas, peanut processing facility once owned by the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). On Sept. 21, 2015, his past bosses and supervisors — Stewart Parnell, former owner of PCA, Michael Parnell, former peanut broker, and Mary Wilkerson, former quality assurance manager — sat for sentencing in the same courthouse in which their federal trial was conducted a year earlier.

At the heart of this trial and sentencing sits the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak, considered one of the most significant in U.S. history. The CDC report on this multistate outbreak identifies 714 clinically confirmed illnesses across 46 states and nine deaths. Later estimates from the CDC place the number of potential victims not reporting an illness at more than 22,000.

Their attempts to hide evidence and obstruct justice delayed investigators from finding the true source of the contamination and bringing an end to the outbreak sooner.

Kenneth Kendrick

Kenneth Kendrick

Unbeknownst to investigators, PCA also had a peanut processing plant in Plainview, Texas, where Kendrick worked for several months in 2006. Back then, Kendrick observed numerous problems in the Texas plant, including rat infestations, bird nests, and a roof leak — all of which triggered his concern for feces in the product. According to Kendrick, “particularly with water leaking off a roof, bird feces can wash in and drip onto the peanuts.”

After only a few months on the job, Kendrick chose to leave his position with PCA because, as he stated, “I knew it was a train wreck and something unethical and bad was about to happen.”

“When I was working there, [PCA had] nothing that resembled a quality assurance program,” Kendrick said. “I came from a lab testing background in the meat industry. I thought there would be regular testing, like in the meat industry… .”

Years later, when Kendrick learned that the widespread Salmonella outbreak in 2008-09 had been traced back to PCA’s Georgia plant, he spent “hundreds of hours” trying to contact the media and federal food or health agencies to alert them to the numerous violations he witnessed in PCA’s plant in Plainview. Attempt after attempt failed to result in a reply from anyone. Kendrick sent anonymous emails and letters to the Texas Department of Health and to companies that purchased products from his plant, but he never received a response from them.

The only response he received was from the Chicago office of STOP Foodborne Illness, the leading national non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of illness and death from foodborne pathogens. STOP convinced FDA officials to meet with Kendrick in January 2009.

The staff at STOP Foodborne Illness also connected Kendrick with Gardiner Harris, a reporter at The New York Times. Harris’ article, “After Tests, Peanut Plant in Texas Is Closed,” appeared in the Feb. 11, 2009, Health and Policy section of the paper.

After that article appeared, STOP Foodborne Illness connected Kendrick with a producer from ABC’s “Good Morning America” show.

PCA plant in Plainview, TX

The now-closed Peanut Corporation of America facility in Plainview, TX.

During a Feb. 16, 2009, exclusive interview with the show, Kendrick discussed how his granddaughter became ill with Salmonella-like symptoms for three weeks in December, a time when she only wanted to eat peanut butter crackers.

“So I kept giving her the crackers and she kept getting sicker,” Kendrick said. “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights over that, a lot of crying over that issue.” He then went on to describe in shocking detail the conditions he observed at the PCA plant in Texas.

After his interviews, investigators shifted their focus to the plant where Kendrick once worked. Texas officials had no idea that the Plainview facility even existed. Stewart Parnell had not registered his Texas peanut facility as a food processing plant with the state.

As a result of Kendrick’s whistleblowing, federal authorities and the Texas Department of Health investigated the Plainview plant as another source of the outbreak. His information helped prove that peanut products were being shipped between PCA facilities in different states — contrary to what Parnell had told the public and investigators throughout the outbreak.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Parnell, his brother, and three other executives involved in the attempts to conceal problems at PCA on charges of fraud, wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and more than 70 other charges.

At the end of their 2014 trial, a 12-member jury found Stewart Parnell guilty on 67 federal felony counts, Michael Parnell guilty on 30 counts, and Wilkerson guilty on one of two counts of obstruction of justice.

The 2015 sentencing of the five convicted food industry executives included the testimonies of victims and families affected by PCA and the outbreak of Salmonella tied to the company. Jeff Almer, who lost his mother during the outbreak, named each guilty executive and had a word or two for them. He asked Wilkerson about her definition of quality assurance. He even stared at Stewart Parnell and said, “You killed my mom.”

Before ending his testimony, Almer stated before the court his appreciation for the efforts of Kenneth Kendrick in helping to make sure that the investigation, as well as the subsequent trial and sentencing, became possible.

On Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, the judge handed Stewart Parnell a sentence of 28 years in prison, Michael Parnell 20 years, and Mary Wilkerson 5 years. Former PCA managers Daniel Kilgore and Samuel Lightsey, who pleaded guilty under agreements with federal prosecutors, are scheduled to receive their sentences on Oct. 1, 2015.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

© Food Safety News