Jury selection is underway for the trial of three people, employees and associates with a peanut processing plant blamed for the deadliest Salmonella outbreak in U.S. history, which killed nine people and sickened more than 700 in 2009.
Former Peanut Company of America owner Stewart Parnell, his brother and food broker Michael Parnell, and the peanut plant’s quality control manager Mary Wilkerson were indicted last year on 76 criminal counts that allege the three shipped peanuts contaminated with Salmonella to industrial food customers – including nursing homes, schools and food suppliers – and covered up lab tests that showed some batches of the peanuts had tested positive for the bacteria notorious for causing foodborne illnesses. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson were also charted with obstruction of justice. Last May, plant manager Samuel Lightsey was charged and pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts related to the outbreak.
The outbreak led to recalls of thousands of products – including ice cream, candy bars, and cookies – by more than 300 companies that used the contaminated peanuts.
People who consume food contaminated with Salmonella bacteria can develop symptoms of infections 12 to 72 hours after consumption. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps which last four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment but in some cases diarrhea and dehydration may be so severe that patients must be hospitalized. Older adults, infants and those with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk.
It is highly unusual for the federal government to seek criminal charges in cases of foodborne outbreaks, however there was sufficient evidence in the Peanut Company of America case that the government believed that the charged persons were not jut negligent, but also knew that the products being shipped were either contaminated or untested. They also misled customers and federal agents investigating the outbreak.