When Shirley Almer’s grown children describe their mother’s death just days before Christmas Day 2008, they say that the lively 72-year-old grandmother beat cancer twice, but she couldn’t beat peanut butter.
Clifford Tousignant’s family tells a similar story. The decorated Korean War veteran and devoted great grandfather fell ill from Salmonella in his peanut butter sandwiches around the same time. After struggling against the infection for weeks, he died in January 2009 at the age of 78, a year and a half short of his goal to outlive his father.
Almer and Tousignant were two of the nine victims who died in the 2008-2009 Salmonella peanut butter outbreak that sickened at least 714 Americans across 46 states. The outbreak, one of the deadliest and widespread in U.S. history, resulted in recalls of 3,913 different products made by 361 companies. It captured national attention and even attracted commentary from President Barack Obama, who said parents shouldn’t have to worry about their children’s peanut butter, something his daughter Sasha ate for lunch “probably three times a week.”
But more than three years later, many of those affected by the outbreak have yet to find any resolution.
Executives at the company responsible for the outbreak, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), have never been charged with any crimes, though many accuse them of knowingly shipping contaminated peanuts to processors. The company has gone through bankruptcy and lawsuits, but some still say the individuals who called the shots at PCA deserve their day in court.
Food and Drug Administration officials first investigated PCA’s facilities in January 2009 and soon learned that employees had previously been ordered to ship peanuts with samples that tested positive for Salmonella after a second sample tested negative. (Contaminated batches may test negative if there is no Salmonella in the particular section getting sampled.)
According to inspectors, at least 12 samples from the company’s production chain were contaminated between 2007 and 2008, but PCA did little to clean their facilities or remedy the problem. On some occasions, PCA shipped out peanuts before initial test results came back positive for Salmonella.
Former CEO faces blame
The driving force behind PCA’s alleged negligence was former company owner, president and CEO Stewart Parnell, the man who in company emails allegedly ordered the shipment of contaminated products, or ordered re-tests when initial tests showed contamination.
In January 2009, Parnell allegedly told his employees that the company’s products had never tested positive for Salmonella, despite the 12 positive tests over the 2 preceding years. And even after federal inspectors shut down his plants, Parnell asked the FDA to let him sell his remaining peanuts because he was losing money.
Jeff Almer, one of Shirley Almer’s sons, still holds out hope that Parnell will someday face charges for his mother’s untimely death. He said that the evidence on the public record against Parnell and PCA should be enough to justify some type of criminal charge.
“It’s my mission to do everything in my power to make sure justice happens,” he told Food Safety News. “I just want to know what the truth is. I want to see this guy walk into a courtroom.”
But neither Almer nor Parnell — nor any of the thousands affected by the outbreak — know whether that day will ever come.
When Food Safety News contacted the U.S. Department of Justice to ask about an investigation into criminal charges against Parnell or PCA, a spokesperson would only say that the department does not comment on unannounced investigations, whether or not they exist. Parnell’s attorneys did not respond to Food Safety News’ requests for information.
In conversations with other media outlets, Parnell’s attorney Bill Gust has said that Parnell has been wrongfully made a scapegoat by politicians and victims, but the outbreak should be blamed on a number of factors out of Parnell’s control.
Plus, if Parnell faces charges, numerous other food processors should have been tried for more egregious negligence, he has said.
Outbreak prompts congressional hearings
After the outbreak, lawsuits and public backlash drove PCA to bankruptcy.
Parnell’s last public appearance was on February 11, 2009, when he was asked to testify at a hearing on the outbreak hosted by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. To each question posed by the panel of U.S. Representatives, he and former PCA plant manager Sammy Lightsey invoked their Fifth Amendment rights to not incriminate themselves. At one point, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden brandished a container full of grocery products featuring PCA peanuts and asked the men to sample something. They declined.
Family members of victims also testified at the hearing, including Jeff Almer and Peter Hurley, the father of a Jacob Hurley, a three year-old boy sickened for weeks during the outbreak.
Hurley, a police officer in Portland, Oregon, told Food Safety News that under Oregon law the role Parnell allegedly played in the Salmonella outbreak could be considered criminal negligent homicide. Moreover, he said he was disheartened by the lack of charges against Parnell or PCA after all the time that has passed.
“My department has opened and closed dozens upon dozens of homicide cases in our city, but the justice department hasn’t gotten anywhere,” he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Lou Tousignant, Clifford Tousignant’s son, also testified at the hearing. He told Food Safety News that he thinks the only deterrence to food companies acting more responsibly would be the threat of criminal charges in cases like the Salmonella outbreak.
“They don’t care about the fines, but if there were some criminal charges brought against them, that would have teeth,” he said. “That would perhaps have a little bit more of an impact. I think it’s a joke that nothing’s happened on the criminal side.”
At a later congressional hearing, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak said that while PCA was responsible for distributing contaminated products, placing all the blame on PCA would mean that food manufacturers such as Nestle, King Nut and Kellogg — companies that purchased PCA peanuts — should not be expected to verify the safety of their ingredients.
“Each company in the chain of manufacturing has an obligation to ensure that the ingredients they are using, as well as their final products, are safe for Americans to consume,” said Stephen Sundloff, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at one of the hearings.
But FDA officials also alleged that Parnell was not giving his customers any indication that PCA had Salmonella problems. In a January 2009 e-mail to King Nut, Parnell said that he wasn’t aware of any Salmonella in PCA’s products.
Parnell and victims try to move on
Parnell has reportedly returned to the peanut business as a consultant. He has told reporters that he would love to tell his side of the story to the press, but his attorneys continue to advise against it.
Whether or not any criminal charges come forth, many of those affected by the outbreak say the experience opened their eyes to the significance of food safety issues. Some say they have moved on, hoping to take some with them some important lessons.
“Food safety is the one thing that crosses all boundaries: economic, political, dietary. You can be a staunch vegan or on the Adkins diet — it doesn’t matter,” Hurley said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re living on Martha’s Vineyard or in the White House or a prison or my house, food is the one things we’ve all got in common. It shouldn’t kill you.”
Lou Tousignant said his father’s death caused a shift in his family’s eating habits, but admitted that the healthier foods they now eat can’t guarantee they don’t fall victim to foodborne illness.
Tousignant said he’s happy to see a lot of his father’s character in his son, and he prefers to honor his father’s life instead of focusing on the cause of his death.
“With that said,” he added, “if there were criminal charges filed, I’d be one of the happiest guys alive.”