Lawmakers Examine Peanut Recall

Peanut co. president refuses to testify on Capitol Hill and is quickly dismissed

ByABC News
February 11, 2009, 2:39 PM

Feb. 11, 2009— -- The president of the peanut company at the center of the salmonella outbreak told health officials of the dire need "to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money" during the growing recall, according to an e-mail released today at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

The e-mails were sent even after test results showed traces of salmonella in some of the company's peanut stock.

But when Stewart Parnell, Peanut Corp. of America's president, was called to testify at today's hearing before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce panel, he refused to answer any questions about his e-mails -- or anything else -- and was promptly dismissed.

Watch "World News with Charles Gibson" TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m. ET for the full report.

"I respectfully decline to answer your question based on the protection afforded to me under the United States Constitution," Parnell said in response to questions from lawmakers.

Sammy Lightsey, manager the company's plant in Blakely, Ga., also refused to answer questions.

After the men left the hearing, Jeffrey Almer of Savage, Mich., whose 72-year-old mother died just before Christmas, told ABC News that Parnell's refusal to answer questions proved he was gutless. His sister Ginger Lorentz called Parnell "a coward" who had "no moral compass." The Almer family has filed a lawsuit against the Peanut Corp. of America.

Earlier Almer told lawmakers, "I didn't think I could possibly get more outraged than I already am about how this happened, but I have to tell you it's really reached another level after seeing emails and comments from Mr. Parnell, no excuses."

The company e-mails, obtained by the House panel, appeared to show that Peanut Corp. of America let peanuts it knew could be tainted leave the plant.

"This company cared more about its financial bottom line than it did about the safety of its customers," said panel chairman Rep. Henry Waxman D-Calif.

In prepared testimony, Charles Deibel, owner of one of the labs who found traces of salmonella in products from Peanut Corp. of America, said the disregarding of a positive test for salmonella is "virtually unheard of" in the U.S. food industry.

But lawmakers examining one of the largest food recalls in history also said the broader food safety system need fixing.

"We appear to have a total systemic breakdown, with severe consequences for hundreds of victims, for which we need explanations," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.

"Either you don't have the resources, or you are incompetent to do the job you're supposed to do," Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said to FDA food safety director Stephen Sundlof. "Which conclusion am I to arrive at?"

"I would hope the former," Sundlof replied.

On Monday, the FBI raided the Peanut Corporation of America's Blakely, Ga., facility as part of the ongoing criminal investigation into the peanut recall. On Tuesday, the company's subsidiary in Plainview, Texas, announced it, too, would temporarily close its doors after lab tests detected the possible presence of salmonella.

The chain of events in the salmonella outbreak has resulted in the removal of 1,845 peanut products from store shelves, 600 illnesses and an estimated eight deaths believed to be linked to bad peanuts. Peanut butter sales are down 22 percent, according to Nielsen research.

"We need a system in the country that's going to work," Stupak told ABC News on Tuesday. "So when an American consumer goes to the grocery store and put that item on the table at night to feed their children, they know it's safe."

"Unfortunately, we go from disaster to disaster, if you will," Nancy Donley, president of food safety advocacy group, Safe Tables Our Priority, or STOP, told ABC News Tuesday. "I don't know how many it's going to take to finally get government to wake up and say, 'This is enough. Enough is enough already.'"