Georgia company CEO, 2 others slated to go on trial in salmonella outbreak
ATLANTA — Three people accused of scheming to manufacture and ship salmonella-tainted peanuts that killed nine people, sickened more than 700 and prompted one of the largest food recalls in history are set to go on trial this week in south Georgia.
A federal indictment unsealed in February 2013 brought charges against the head of Peanut Corp. of America and several others stemming from the outbreak tied to peanuts processed by the company. It was an unusual move — the federal government rarely prosecutes companies in food poisoning cases.
Federal investigators found filthy conditions at the company's Georgia plant and said the employees even fabricated certificates saying peanut product shipments were safe when tests said otherwise.
Company owner Stewart Parnell invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before a congressional committee in February 2009. Emails obtained by congressional investigators showed that he once directed employees to “turn them loose” after samples of peanuts tested positive for salmonella and then were cleared in another test.
Several months before the outbreak, when a final lab test found salmonella, Parnell expressed concern to Georgia plant manager Samuel Lightsey, writing in an Oct. 6, 2008, email that the delay “is costing us huge $$$$$.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 714 people in 46 states were infected between September 2008 and March 2009. There were three deaths in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.
The 76-count indictment charged Parnell and food broker brother Michael Parnell with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead. Stewart Parnell and Georgia plant quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson were charged with obstruction of justice.
The conspiracy and obstruction charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Lightsey pleaded guilty in May to seven counts. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Food and Drug Administration inspectors found bad conditions in the company's plant in Blakely, Ga., including mold, roaches and a leaky roof. Another plant in Plainview, Texas, was shuttered by that state's Department of Health Services in February 2009 after product samples tested positive for salmonella.
Jeff Almer's 72-year-old mother, Shirley, was among the nine people who died after eating tainted peanut butter. After successfully battling lung cancer and a brain tumor, she ate the bad peanut butter while being treated for dehydration in a Minnesota hospital.
Since his mother's death in December 2008, Almer has researched foodborne illnesses and pushed for stricter legislation on safeguards. He's been one of the leading voices calling for prosecution.
“I didn't know whether to celebrate or mourn,” he said, recalling the moment he heard about the indictment. “It was a really tough situation because it reminded me about my mom's situation all over again, so the excitement was tempered.”
Randy Napier's 80-year-old mother also died after eating contaminated peanut butter in an assisted living home in Ohio. He still harbors anger toward Stewart Parnell and hopes to see him punished.
Napier and Almer hope the trial, which is expected to last weeks, sends a message to food manufacturers that there can be serious consequences for peddling contaminated food.
Criminal charges are rare in food outbreak cases, because intent is often hard to prove, and companies often step up and acknowledge their mistakes.
The indictment said Peanut Corp. misled customers about the existence of salmonella in its product, even after lab tests showed the bacteria was present. Prosecutors say employees fabricated certificates accompanying some of the shipments saying they were safe.
The company later went bankrupt.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- North Korea may have key to nuclear missile, general says
- New York, New Jersey order 21-day quarantine of all in contact with Ebola virus
- Warhol bodyguard sued over hidden artwork
- U.S. rules out apology to Pyongyang in exchange for 2 imprisoned Americans
- Philadelphia Mafia figure returned to prison for meeting friend
- Lawyer turns down AG post
- Washington city takes stock of damage from rare tornado
- Seattle area school homecoming ‘prince’ guns down classmates
- 2 California deputies slain, suspect captured
- Hatchet attack was terror, NYPD says
- Test confirms remains are missing Virginia student’s