Kellogg’s of Battle Creek believed it was getting what it had ordered from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). It wanted only domestic peanuts free of Salmonella contamination, period. But each time a tanker truck with a 40,000-pound load left PCA’s Blakely, GA, peanut processing plant, Kellogg’s was getting something else entirely. The big tanker trucks were at least partially filled with paste made from imported Mexican peanuts, and sometimes the shipments did test positive for Salmonella, but PCA kept Kellogg’s in the dark about the bogus and contaminated product. That picture of deception is being painted this week in a federal courtroom in Albany, GA. Former PCA plant manager Samuel Lightsey, a government witness, is helping prosecutors prove that fraud and conspiracy were everyday business practices at PCA. When Lightsey resumes his testimony today, it will mark his 19th hour on the witness stand, and prosecutors are not through with him. He is their star witness, showing how Kellogg’s was deceived and how PCA recklessly shipped untested peanuts without regard to customers. Lightsey is one of two former PCA managers who reached an agreement to plead guilty and become a cooperating government witness at trial in exchange for consideration in sentencing. Government attorneys believe his testimony will help persuade the jury to convict former PCA owner and chief executive Stewart Parnell, his peanut broker brother Michael Parnell, and former PCA quality control manager Mary Wilkerson. The three were charged, along with Lightsey, in February 2013 with a total of 76 federal felony counts, including fraud and conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and placing misbranded and adulterated products into interstate commerce. (Daniel Kilgore, another former Blakely manager, reached a plea agreement with the government before the indictment against the others was unsealed.) Much of his first 18 hours of testimony has been tedious because Lightsey is testifying about specific documents and shipments. He told the jury on Monday that PCA was shipping products before microbiological test results came back. When PCA shipped peanut paste to Kellogg’s, it included a certificate that stated the product was free of any Salmonella or other microbiological contamination. When post-shipment testing later showed otherwise, Lightsey said, “It was a mistake,” but that nobody at PCA bothered to tell Kellogg’s about the problem. When he first took the witness stand last week, Lightsey testified that he had been waved off from dealing with Kellogg’s by defendant Michael Parnell. “I can handle Kellogg’s,” Parnell reportedly told Lightsey. “We’ve been shipping to them with false COAs (false certificates of analysis) since before you got here. I’ll handle Kellogg’s. Don’t worry about it.”
Lightsey said that no one at Kellogg’s knew they were getting Mexican peanuts. Kellogg’s, which had annual sales of more than $12.5 billion at the time of the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak traced back to PCA products, paid heavily for not knowing more about its supply chain. Not only was it caught up in the recall of products — such as its Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter, made with PCA peanut butter and paste — but it also paid some significant claims to outbreak victims. When the government completes its questioning of Lightsey, the three teams of defense attorneys will have their go at him. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands announced the jury will get a day off on Friday, Aug. 22, as the trial will take a long weekend break. The outbreak of deadly Salmonella typhimurium traced back to the Blakely PCA plant five years ago eventually sickened more than 700 people, resulting in nine deaths. The outbreak investigation, ultimately headed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, lasted more than four years before the 76-count indictment was finally unsealed.