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.”

PCA’s system was depicted in Lightsey’s testimony as well-thought-out and deliberate. It especially had to get around Kellogg’s customer specifications, which stated, “Peanut paste will be produced from good quality domestic Runner type peanuts.” The specs were included in Kellogg’s purchase agreement with PCA.

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.

  • I would imagine that Kellogg is a wee bit more involved in the supply chain nowadays.

  • Sansher

    yea and the thing is, this place was inspected and passed by State of Georgia inspectors and a private audit firm as well, that part is sad, that both protective inspection layers failed.

  • Ben

    As we see on every recall since, the distributors and resellers don’t care about what they get and do not test anything. It wouldn’t be expensive to do some tests before selling it to the consumers and make them sick. These careless companies are loosing twice, paying for the huge recall cost and not selling anything to the customers as long as they are sick! I know what I’m talking about, as I just was sick for over a week from the listeria in peaches shipped all over the place by Wawona. I’ll make sure, I’m not touching any of their products in the future. Just good I’m not eating Avocados! another companiy that claims being on top of food safety. Sunfood in CA is recalling Carob Powder today. Where is this powder used at?

  • HydrogenBond

    If I’m following the story correctly, I think that they did have certificates but that they were falsified by PCA.

    • Regcoordin MD

      You are correct on that.

  • Regcoordin MD

    The private audit firm has since tightened up their audits, and it was a source of embarrassment to them. This goes to show that we must rely on the honesty of a manufacturer since the FDA and USDA are stretched so thin. The requirements of FSMA which mandate more strict validation of the supply chain are in response to dishonest manufacturers who willfully sell unsafe products just to make more money. Sort reminds one of the days of the robber barons in our past, or the news about unsafe food materials from foreign countries. But this was a US company that did not care about the health of our own citizens.

    • whoisoutthere

      Have the big industrial food manufacturers every really cared about much beyond profit? Probably not, except in cases like this they got caught and are now bankrupt. Seems that alone would be incentive, but the gamble on whether or not one will get caught seems to be worth taking for these crap places.

      • FoodSci

        The big industrial food manufactures (like Kelloggs) care about their brand equity. Poisoning customers would devalue the brand and therefore be frowned on.

  • Ed Phelps

    What is more disgusting? Stewart Parnell worked recently for a company called PS International Ltd. Apparently he is big buddies with the President and former owner and they supported his visas and travel to international destinations AFTER he was served his 76 indictments. (Read the prior articles about Stewie’s flight risk). According to my sources in the U.S. peanut shelling business, Stew worked there until shortly before his trial brokering peanuts from around the globe back into the U.S. How can a company knowingly hire someone such as this to be involved with our global food supply? And even more disgusting is that they would sponsor his travel and visas abroad. Sound suspicious. Oh – and by the way – PS International is owned by the same company that owns Butterball Turkeys. Our nation’s food supply is at great risk when wealthy idiots support their fallen comrades.