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2:16 pm
Thu February 21, 2013

Former Peanut Firm Executives Indicted Over 2009 Salmonella Outbreak

Originally published on Fri February 22, 2013 10:26 am

Four former executives from Peanut Corp. of America and a related company are facing federal criminal charges for covering up information that their peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella bacteria.

The charges are related to a nationwide outbreak of salmonella back in 2009. More than 700 people became ill, and federal investigators traced the source of the bacteria to peanut butter manufactured in Blakely, Ga., by the Peanut Corp. of America. The company is no longer in business.

The 76-count indictment was unsealed Wednesday in federal court in Georgia. The charges include conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and others related to distributing adulterated or misbranded food.

Federal officials say executives at the company were aware that their products had tested positive for salmonella, but they failed to alert their customers, and also lied about those test results to inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration.

The executives also allegedly falsified documents that stated "that shipments of peanut products were free of pathogens when, in fact, there had been no tests on the products at all or when the laboratory results showed that a sample tested positive for salmonella," according to a Justice Department statement.

The four people indicted include Stewart Parnell, the former company president; Samuel Lightsey, former Blakely plant operations manager; and Mary Wilkerson, a quality assurance manager. Also indicted was Michael Parnell, who worked as a food broker on behalf of the peanut company.

The former executives could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Another executive, Daniel Kilgore, who served as a plant manager from 2002 through 2008, has already pleaded guilty in the case.

Dan Charles will have more on this story on All Things Considered later today, so stay tuned.

Update at 4:36 p.m. ET: Attorneys for Stewart Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corp. of America, have released a statement promising to defend Parnell against the charges. According to the statement, officials from the FDA had visited the Georgia factory regularly, were "well aware" of the company's testing procedures, and "made no objection" to them.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Federal prosecutors announced criminal charges today against four former executives of the Peanut Corporation of America. Contaminated food often leads to civil lawsuits; consumers demanding money. But these criminal charges could result in jail time for selling peanut products that were contaminated with salmonella. The resulting outbreak four years ago made more than 700 people sick.

Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Federal officials say there were a whole array of problems at the Peanut Corporation of America's factory in Blakely, Georgia. There was contamination with salmonella because the company didn't keep its factory clean enough.

They say there was also deception. When tests showed that a batch of peanut paste contained traces of salmonella, company executives just re-tested that batch and when the second test came up clean they sold it. They also issued certificates stating that products were free of salmonella when no tests had been done.

And prosecutors say in the middle of the salmonella outbreak of 2009, when inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration showed up, company officials lied to them.

Some of the people who got sick in 2009 sued the company years ago and won. It put the company out of business. Now, the company's former owner, Stewart Parnell, and three other executives are facing federal charges that could put them in prison for up to 20 years. Another former executive has pleaded guilty.

Around the country, farmers, food retailers and lawyers have been watching all this with great interest.

BRAD SULLIVAN: It really is an unprecedented case, so you follow it.

CHARLES: That's Brad Sullivan, an attorney in Salinas, California, who often defends food companies in court. But his clients have never faced jail time.

SULLIVAN: In my belief, it's at least the first high-profile criminal prosecution.

CHARLES: At least in recent memory.

SULLIVAN: And I use it to educate a client. And a client can be a farmer, a processor, you know, a distributor.

CHARLES: Sullivan says the lesson is if safety officials think your products might possibly be making people sick, don't get in the way of their investigation - turn over records, open up your facilities.

The lawyer for Stewart Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, released a statement saying Parnell never intentionally shipped any tainted food. Federal and state officials, he says, were well aware of the company's practices and never raised any objections.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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BLOCK: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.