When U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg Thursday told a U.S. Senate hearing about an ongoing criminal investigation into the Peanut Corporation of America over the nationwide Salmonella outbreak that began late last year, many suddenly sat up and listened.
PCA allegedly shipped peanut butter products into interstate commerce, with knowledge that it was contaminated with Salmonella. The Salmonella outbreak associated with PCA products ultimately led to 9 deaths, 700 illnesses and approximately $1 billion in economic losses to the peanut industry, but there has been no word on the status of a federal investigation into the matter for several months.
Dr. Hamburg was testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Thursday when freshman Senator Al Franken, D-MN, asked her about it.
“Let me ask you about prosecution of the folks at Peanut Corporation of America. What happened to them? Did they just go bankrupt, is that what they did?” Franken asked.
“I think they did declare bankruptcy and there is a criminal case that’s ongoing,” the FDA Commissioner said.
“A federal one or a state one?” pressed the Minnesota senator. Hamburg, unsure, looked back at her special assistant, Michael Taylor, for confirmation, and answered, “It’s both.”
Peter Hurley, a police officer from Oregon whose four-year-old son Jake was among the several hundred people hospitalized from PCA’s Salmonella-tainted peanut butter welcomed Hamburg’s statement.
“Good. I hope that there are both federal and state investigations going on. But just like everybody else, I haven’t heard anything,” said Hurley.
“Based on the evidence we are all already aware of, Stewart Parnell’s emails, he was engaged in criminal activity, and it would only be appropriate for state and federal authorities to pursue an active criminal investigation,” added Hurley.
When asked about Hamburg’s comments, an FDA spokesman said, “It is FDA’s longstanding policy, consistent with the policy of the Department of Justice, not to comment or provide information with respect to on-going investigations.”
FDA directed any further questions from Food Safety News to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Georgia.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Georgia would not clarify the status of the investigation, if any, is on-going, either.
“We can neither confirm nor deny that we are involved in such a matter. This is pursuant to policies of this office and the United States Department of Justice,” a spokesman said.
Outbreak victims and their families have been left in the dark for months.
Gabrielle Meunier of Vermont, whose eight-year-old son Christopher is still recovering from his horrific bout with Salmonella after eating peanut butter crackers, has asked both the FDA and Senator Patrick Leahy, D-VT for answers with no luck.
“I have asked Senator Leahy’s office twice now what they know about any charges being formally issued against Stewart Parnell and PCA and they say they have been told by the Justice Department that they can ‘neither confirm nor deny’ that there is any investigation,” said Meunier.
Meunier has been very proactive in seeking answers regarding the investigation. “I thought there was plenty of evidence when the FDA did the inspection earlier this year to formally charge PCA with Federal charges. In speaking with the FDA’s Senior Advisor, I believe he felt there was sufficient evidence.”
“I don’t understand the delay nor the secrecy in this case,” said Meunier. “My patience has worn on this. The time is now. This is an outrage and there must be formal charges filed immediately.”
Another mother of an outbreak victim is Ulana Illiano, a New York resident. “I am outraged to learn of the apparent lack of criminal prosecution of Stewart Parnell and others responsible for the Salmonella outbreak,” she said. “If this is in fact true, as the parent of a child who was hospitalized and suffered greatly as a result of this outbreak, I am very disappointed in our justice system. I hope that there will be justice for those who suffered.”
Seattle-based food safety attorney Bill Marler says he is at a loss as to why justice is not moving faster for the victims of the outbreak.
“Representing 100 people who were sickened and several who lost loved ones, I am perplexed that no apparent investigation is ongoing and no prosecution is imminent,” said Marler.
“If a president of a corporation can knowingly sell product that is contaminated with a deadly pathogen, kill at least nine, sicken over 700 and cause $1 billion in economic losses, and still not face criminal prosecution, then when will we ever prosecute?” Marler asked.