Peanut Execs Could Face Prison Over Salmonella Deaths

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

ByABC News
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."