The owner of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), where one of the deadliest Salmonella outbreaks in U.S. history originated, has been indicted by a federal Grand Jury on 76 criminal charges. A group of employees and associates of the now-defunct company have also been arraigned in connection to the 2009 outbreak, which killed 9 people and sickened more than 700.
According to the indictment, unsealed this week, PCA’s former owner, Stewart Parnell, 58, is charged with committing criminal fraud and conspiracy for allegedly selling and shipping out peanut products known to be contaminated. The Salmonella-tainted peanut butter and other peanut-based products went to nursing homes, schools, and food suppliers all over the country.
The ensuing outbreak triggered recalls of thousands of products made by more than 300 companies that used the contaminated PCA peanuts in ice cream, candy bars, cookies, and other types of food.
Stewart Parnell, his brother Michael Parnell, 54, and Samuel Lightsey, 48, have been charged with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy. Stewart Parnell, Mr. Lightsey, and Mary Wilkerson, 39, were also charged with obstruction of justice. Charges were also filed against Daniel Kilgore, 44, for mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy. Mr. Kilgore pleaded guilty to the charges.
Although it is highly unusual for the federal government to pursue criminal charges in cases of food sickness, there was sufficient evidence in the PCA case that Mr. Parnell and the others charged weren’t just negligent, but knew that the products being shipped were either contaminated or untested. They then misled their customers and federal agents investigating the outbreak, law professor Carl Tobias told the New York Times.
Michael Moore, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said in a statement that “Unfortunately … these defendants cared less about the quality of the food they were providing to the American people and more about the quantity of money they were gathering while disregarding food safety.”
The indictment asserts that those charged knew that laboratory testing confirmed the presence of Salmonella bacteria in peanut products from PCA’s Blakely, Georgia, plant, but they concealed that information from their customers. The indictment also said investigators uncovered a scheme to create fake certificates of analysis avowing to the safety of the company’s products when those products were known to be either contaminated or untested.
According to the New York Times, the indictment quoted several e-mails from the defendants. For instance, in 2007, when one employee said in an email that containers of peanut meal were covered in dust and rat feces, Mr. Parnell’s response was, “Clean em’ all up and ship them.”
The indictment also cites another email, sent in 2008, that describes Mr. Parnell scolding employees for throwing out peanuts, saying, “These are not peanuts you are throwing away every day, it is money, it is money,” the New York Times reported.
According to the Government Accountability Project (GAP), “former PCA employee-turned-whistleblower Kenneth Kendrick wasn’t shocked to hear that the plant he worked at in Plainview, Texas, was included in the indictment. He worked there in 2006, but left after four months after seeing the appalling conditions that threatened food safety. It wasn’t until his appearance on Good Morning America after the outbreak that his concerns were heeded.”