Everything I know about the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), I learned from a U.S. District Attorney for Idaho years ago.   He was, I think, taken aback by how little this then-recent J-School, Political Science graduate knew about our federal justice system.


Actually, I knew enough about the the third branch of government.   I just did not know what all the attorneys did.  At that time, I was left with the impression a U.S.D.A., appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, was a needed and fairly independent actor in our federal system. 

 If I had a question for a U.S. attorney back then, I could just call them up and asked it.

My impression now is that our federal district attorneys are no longer independent actors, but one big herd being run out of DOJ in Washington, D.C.  Maybe Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago runs his own show.  I don’t really know.

What’s evolved is federal prosecution machinery that is about the least transparent part of the government, on par with our many spy agencies.   Getting much beyond a standard list of responses out of DOJ is almost impossible.  

The top of that list is that DOJ will neither confirm nor deny an investigation is underway.  I am sure they do it in part because federal judges like it that way and because it eliminates any follow up questions.  Rarely do we get a U.S.D.A. or assistant on the record.  They often will not answer questions that are follow ups to their own press releases.

All of which is to explain why its so difficult to get accurate, currant information on federal criminal investigations into multiple state foodborne illness outbreaks involving injuries and/or deaths.

Food Safety News readers know that the one outbreak we’ve never let drop is the one involving Peanut Corporation of America.  By my count, we’ve dedicated at least 300 stories to PCA.

We’ve tried to give voice to the victims, and get answers for them.

PCA was the “perfect storm” of foodborne illness.   The pathogen was Salmonella Typhimurium.  The transmission source was peanut butter.   There were 714 confirmed cases in 46 states.  Nine good people were killed by the outbreak and they left families behind that deserve answers from their federal government.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a multiplier number to figure how many people were actually involved an outbreak, beyond the officially confirmed cases   The multiplier suggests thousands were impacted by the PCA outbreak.

Many other victims were PCA’s clients in the food industry.  Peanut butter and peanut paste from PCA was recalled as ingredients in 3,913 products produced by 361 companies.   No recall of a single ingredient across multiple product lines of multiple companies has ever been larger, more complex or more costly.

PCA cost others in the food industry at least $1 billion, according to estimates.

That $1 billion, however, fades along side those nine lives.  Each loss is tragic, but as the families of these nine have come forward to testify before Congress or talk to the media, it’s become apparent those  who died lived large and were at the center of their families lives.

 Those survivors  been waiting for federal prosecution of PCA’s Stewart Parnell, the chief executive, who many say knowingly shipped contaminated peanut butter.  What the investigation did show was 12 contaminated samples from PCA’s production chain between 2007 and 2008–when the outbreak began. 

PCA did not do much to solve the problem, and Parnell ordered peanuts shipped before positive tests for Salmonella could be returned.  Parnell invoked his Fifth Amendments rights in declining to answer questions before Congress.

In thinking back to the beginning of the PCA outbreak to present day, its amazing how little we  “officially” know.

We learned from the FBI that a criminal investigation led by the Office of Criminal Investigation (OCI) at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was underway. The FBI had helped execute search warrants on the now bankrupt PCA in Georgia and Texas, but quickly said OCI was in charge of the investigation.

About a year later,  FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg confirmed the OCI investigation was continuing during testimony she provided to Congress.   Except for those “neither confirm nor deny” statements when we call around to various U.S. District attorneys offices, that’s about it for official information.

Unofficially, there have been other indications like Parnell getting himself an excellent federal criminal defense attorney or tracks OCI occasionally leaves when going about its work.   But that’s about it.

The great irony is that DOJ has produced a system that leaves the victims and their families in the dark,  while those subjects of the investigation at least know what possibility might coming down the road.  The only thing the rest of us know is its hard telling what a herd is really up to.