Lawmakers Examine Peanut Recall

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

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.'"

The Faces of the Salmonella Outbreak

In addition to families like the Almers who are angered by a relative's recent death, the faces of the salmonella outbreak include a plant worker suddenly unemployed and a small-town Georgia mayor hoping to bring jobs back into his community.

Blakely Mayor Ric Hall told ABC News Tuesday that food safety is based largely on trust that companies will do what they're supposed to. Hall said he was "shocked" that the company may have shipped out tainted products.

Hall said the closure of the town's Peanut Corporation of America plant, now the focus of a criminal investigation about food safety, has resulted in 50 job losses in addition to 100-plus recent layoffs at the town's largest employer.

"In a community of this size, with the limited number of jobs, to lose any of them, certainly is a blow," Hall told ABC News on Tuesday.

At the town's peanut plant, former workers were increasingly reluctant to talk. A woman who had been hired to clean the plant, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the facility was filthy.

Another employee, who also asked not to be identified, told ABC News that workers had no idea the company had a dozen positive salmonella tests but shipped out peanut butter and nuts anyway because "that information is not for the average employee to actually see."

"The people that work there, they work hard at their job," he said. "They did their job to the best of their ability. It's just a tragic situation that so many people sick, so many people dying."

That worker also said the plant "was not in that bad of a shape."

"It's not filthy, it's not nasty," he added. "How are you going to come to work somewhere that's nasty and then go home? You stay home. It wasn't like that."

Hall, too, said the plant was not unsanitary.

"I have been at the plant from time to time, and no, I didn't see rats running across the floor, and roaches clinging off the sacks, and leaky roofs with water pouring in," the mayor said. "I saw none of that. It appeared to be a normal manufacturing operation just like the other peanut processing plants we have here in this community."

Sources Tuesday said the FBI raided the Blakely, Ga., plant Monday looking for quality control records and other documents. Agents want to know who oversaw salmonella testing and who was responsible for shipping out tainted products. Investigators from the criminal division of the FDA were in Blakely as well.

Authorities this week also searched the company's home office in Virginia.

In Texas, officials said samples taken last week from the Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Plainview are 99 percent positive for salmonella. The tainted products did not make it to consumers. The FDA has now collected 50 additional samples for testing and is not ruling out another recall.

The Peanut Corporation of America's third plant, located in Suffolk, Va., was inspected by the FDA Jan 26. The FDA took samples there that came back negative.

"Consumers just need to be, frankly, yelling and screaming to say, 'Hey make it safer," Donley said. "It shouldn't be up to us to have to find it and monitor our kitchens and cupboards and pantries and freezers to make sure that we're not harboring some sort of unsafe food."

"We have to keep the pressure on the FDA to do their job of inspecting and making sure food is safe for the American consumer," Stupak said.

"FDA is working hard to ensure the safety of food, in collaboration with its federal, state, local, and international food safety partners, and with industry, consumers, and academia," FDA food safety director Stephen Sundlof told lawmakers Feb. 5 in his prepared testimony for the Senate panel. "Although the Salmonella Typhimurium foodborne illness outbreak underscores the challenges we face, the American food supply continues to be among the safest in the world. Food safety is a priority for the new administration."

ABC News' Brian Hartman, Thomas Giusto and Matt Hosford contributed to this report.