Peanut Execs Could Face Prison Over Salmonella Deaths

Nine people died and hundreds sickened by salmonella outbreak linked to peanuts.

February 21, 2013, 4:10 PM

Feb. 21, 2013 -- Randy Napier has waited four years for the news he got today, that criminal charges have been filed against executives and top employees of the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America.

Napier's 80-year old mother died after eating salmonella contaminated peanut butter traced back to one of PCA's plants.

"I am absolutely ecstatic," Napier told ABC News. "I was afraid this day would never get here, so I am extremely happy."

The 2009 salmonella outbreak, linked to peanut bits, peanut butter and paste from PCA's Blakely, Ga., processing plant, was linked to more than 700 illnesses and nine deaths. It mushroomed into one of the largest food safety recalls in U.S. industry, involving hundreds of companies and thousands of products.

Internal company emails released by Congress seemed to reveal that the firm knowingly shipped the tainted products. In August 2008, peanut samples tested positive for salmonella. Instead of pulling the product, the company ordered a second test, and when that came back negative, PCA president Stuart Parnell wrote, "Okay, let's turn them loose then."

After another positive test in October of that year, Parnell emailed "We need to discuss this, this is costing us huge $$$$," according to the documents.

Parnell and three others now face 76 criminal charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. In a statement, Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery said the indictment alleges a "multi-year conspiracy to hide the fact that many of PCA's products were tainted with salmonella." The Justice Department alleges that the company lied to its customers and fabricated documents to indicate that its peanut products were safe.

"When food or drug manufactures lie and cut corners they put all of us at risk," said Delery.

Besides Parnell, the others facing charges are his brother and company vice president Michael Parnell, plant manager Samuel Lightsey, and the plant's quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson. A fifth employee, Daniel Kilgore, pleaded guilty this week to a host of charges, including conspiracy to introduce "adulterated food into interstate commerce," according to the Justice Department.

Criminal charges in cases involving tainted food are extremely rare, according to attorneys who represent victims of food-borne illnesses. Those who lost family members in the salmonella outbreak allegedly caused by the peanuts believe today's charges will reverberate within the food industry.

"I just hope this sends a message to the rest of these companies, to be careful and don't take shortcuts and the almighty dollar is not worth time in jail," said Napier.

That thought was echoed by Lou Tousignant, whose father's nightly ritual – eating a peanut butter sandwich before bed cost - him his life. An emotional Tousignant told ABC News that the charges are "a step in the right direction." He added, "Now when we say enough is enough and you can actually face jail time, I think this is how change will happen."

Peanut Execs Indicted Over Salmonella Deaths

After the contaminated peanut butter was traced back to PCA's Georgia plant, FDA inspectors visited the facility. They found filthy conditions, including holes in the roof, mold and cockroaches. They also found salmonella, according to inspection records.

Stuart Parnell has never spoken publically about the recall. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right, refusing to answer questions when called to testify before Congress. In a statement today, Parnell's attorney Tom Bondurant said, "We will evaluate the charges that have been filed against Mr. Parnell and will prepare for a vigorous defense."

The statement says that the FDA was well aware of the plant's salmonella testing procedures and that state and federal agencies had visited the facility over the years and had voiced no objected to the testing protocols.

In the statement, Parnell's attorney also stated, "It will become clear that Mr. Parnell never intentionally shipped … any tainted food products."

This outbreak once again called into question the system for ensuring food safety in the United States. Many of those who lost loved ones pushed for passage of the new Food Safety Modernization Act, which the Food and Drug Administration calls the most sweeping reform of FDA's food safety authority in more than 70 years. The agency is just starting to implement the new law.

Randy Napier believes until these changes are made, the food supply is no safer than it was when his mother died. "Even going into a grocery store, you're playing Russian roulette with your family and it's not right. It's got to be fixed."

As many as 48 million Americans get sick from food-borne illnesses every year, 128,000 are hospitalized and some 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..

Napier and Tousignant are now waiting to see what happens with this case. They both say charges are the first step, but convictions are their goal. Napier says if that happens, "maybe my mother can finally rest in peace."

It's a sentiment Tousignant shares.

"If and when we hopefully do see a conviction, that will really be the best thing that we can do to honor my father and those others that died," he said.

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