This is the fourth in our series of what we consider to be the 17 top food safety stories of 2010. Number 12 in the countdown: The Peanut Corporation of America aftermath.
Civil courts in 2010 produced some financial relief for some victims of the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak of 2008-09 that was caused by Peanut Corporation of America.
But the wait for federal criminal proceedings now continues into a third year.
PCA peanut butter infected 714 people in 46 states between November 2008 and April 2009. Nine people died.
Shortly after the outbreak, Virginia-based PCA filed for bankruptcy. The corporation had a $12 million liability policy that the Bankruptcy Court was able to distribute late in the year among about 122 of the most seriously injured claimants. Some survivors of those who died also shared in the settlement.
Those waiting for criminal sanctions against PCA and its officers, including Stuart Parnell, continued to wait in 2010.
PCA officers and executives, including Parnell, spent part of the year fighting over how a $1 million insurance policy for errors and omissions should be used. Parnell said he needed $951,000 to cover his criminal defense debts.
Others who demanded payments included Samuel Lightsey and Joe Sams, former PCA managers in Blakely, GA, and Mary Wilkerson, a former quality assurance manager.
The bankruptcy trustee argued PCA executives violated a financial trust agreement, meaning at least some of the insurance should be used to pay creditors. U.S. District Judge Norman Moon set $125,000 aside for creditors and left the remaining $875,000 for the ex-PCA executives to fight over among themselves with final court approval.
While Parnell obtained a top federal criminal defense attorney, no federal shoes dropped. And late in the year, a possible reason emerged.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation (OCI) may be in chaos. At a minimum, it has been leaderless since the apparently forced resignation of Terry Vermillion, the 20-year Secret Service agent who headed OCI for 18 years until quitting on Nov. 23.
Vermillion, who was one of FDA’s highest paid executives, did not do well in a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study of OCI and its 180 criminal investigators, who seem to be doing a lot less with more.
Then Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley came up with a whistleblower with stories about Vermillion himself, including the charge that he was running OCI over the phone from his personal residences, not the office.
Maybe new leadership at OCI will bring criminal sanctions in 2011 against the man who allegedly knowingly shipped contaminated peanut products.
Number 11 in the top food safety stories: Another non-O157 E. Coli Bacteria Turns Up In a Yuma Lettuce Field.
When students from Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and Daemen College in Buffalo started becoming ill in mid-April, it was apparent from the start it was going to be a mean little outbreak.
Then U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that out of a dozen cases, three had already advanced to life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). College-age students are not usually victims of HUS, which can threaten the kidneys and central nervous system.
A traceback investigation by FDA found Romaine lettuce distributed under the Freshway Foods brand to the three campuses was responsible. New York State’s lab then found the Romaine Lettuce test positive for E. coli–not the more widely known O157:H7, but the more rare E. coli 0145.
While Freshway Foods conducted recalls of both its Freshway and Imperial Sysco brands of Romaine lettuce in 24 states, attention turned to where the 0145 lettuce was grown.
Food safety attorney Bill Marler was the first to hit the target. “Given the time of year, the most likely area for growing Romaine Lettuce is Arizona–likely Yuma,” he said. “The investigation is likely hampered by the failure of health departments throughout the United States from actually testing ill persons’ stools for E. coli O145.”
Shortly after that, FDA focused its investigation on a specific Yuma lettuce field, which remains undisclosed.
We will pick up again on more Top Stories tomorrow.