Several officials at the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America knew their products may have harbored salmonella bacteria, but they covered up the evidence and sold the food anyway, alleged a 76-count federal indictment unsealed this week.
Peanut butter, roasted peanuts and other items prepared at PCA’s Blakely, Ga. plant were linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 700 people across 46 states and may have contributed to nine deaths.
One of the largest food-based recalls in history resulted, affecting thousands of products made since 2007, including cookies, cereal and even pet treats, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
This week’s indictment pins much of the blame on four former PCA officials, accusing them of engaging “in multiple schemes to defraud the company’s customers.”
The four allegedly failed to keep rodents and insects out of the Blakely plant, continuing to ship products even when testing showed salmonella contamination, fabricating quality assurance labels and lying to and misleading investigators once the outbreak occurred, according to the Justice Department.
“These indictments will have a far-reaching impact on the food industry,” said food safety attorney William D. Marler. “Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters the stream of commerce.”
“Felony counts like this one are rare, but misdemeanor charges that can include fines and jail time can and should happen,” he said.
Stewart Parnell, his brother Michael Parnell and Samuel Lightsey face charges of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and introduction of adulterated and mis-branded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead. Stewart Parnell, PCA’s president, is also facing obstruction of justice charges, as are Lightsey and Mary Wilkerson.
Michael Parnell was a food broker working on PCA’s behalf. Lightsey was the operations manager at the Blakely plant. Wilkerson served in several positions, including that of the plant’s quality assurance manager.
The Justice Department “will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” said Stuart F. Delery, who heads the department’s Civil Division, in a statement.