A federal grand jury, investigating one of the largest food-related recalls ever, indicted four executives at the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America, accusing them of knowing that their products were tainted with salmonella bacteria, covering up the evidence and selling the food anyway.
The 76-count criminal indictment, disclosed Thursday, accused the four of engaging "in multiple schemes to defraud the company's customers."
Named as defendants were the former president, Stewart Parnell; his brother Michael, a food broker representing the company; Samuel Lightsey, operations manager at the company's Blakely, Ga., plant; and Mary Wilkerson, the plant's quality-assurance manager.
Peanut butter, roasted peanuts and other items prepared at the plant were linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 700 people in 46 states and may have contributed to nine deaths, including that of 80-year-old Clifford Tousignant.
"I didn't think there'd ever be any criminal charges filed. It was something I had pretty much given up on," said his son, Lou Tousignant of Walnut Creek, Calif. "I'm a little emotionally shot, but it's a pretty good day."
The four executives allegedly failed to keep rodents and insects out of the Blakely plant, continued to ship products even when testing showed salmonella contamination, fabricated quality-assurance labels and lied to and misled investigators once the outbreak occurred, according to the Justice Department.
The peanut recall affected thousands of products made since 2007, including cookies, cereal and even pet treats, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
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.
Lawyers for three of the defendants couldn't be reached for comment. Lightsey's attorney, Jim Parkman, said he and his client were "ready to get to the rest of the story."
Felony charges of this scope are "unusual" in food-related cases, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
"Often, something goes awry due to a mistake or some kind of negligence," he said. "In this case, the government believes profits were put ahead of the public's safety."
Food safety lawyer William D. Marler said the indictments will have a "far-reaching impact on the food industry."
"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," he said.
The Parnell brothers and Lightsey are charged with mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead. Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson, who served in several positions, are charged with obstruction of justice.
The indictment was unsealed Wednesday but not disclosed publicly until Thursday.
A former employee, Daniel Kilgore, pleaded guilty to several charges, the Justice Department said.
Lightsey attorney Parkman said he and his client have "been waiting for years for something to happen" on the case.
"We're really glad that finally we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and we're relieved that now we can finally get to these accusations and get into court and show what took place as far as he was concerned," Parkman said.
Peanut Corp. of America filed for bankruptcy protection soon after the salmonella outbreak and no longer operates.