published Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Feds indict 4 in peanut butter salmonella outbreak

ATLANTA — A federal grand jury indicted four former employees of a peanut company linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds, leading to one of the largest recalls in history.

The 76-count indictment was unsealed Wednesday in federal court in Georgia. It charged the former employees of Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America with conspiracy, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and others offenses related to contaminated or misbranded food.

Named in the indictment were company owner Stewart Parnell, his brother and company vice president Michael Parnell, Georgia plant manager Samuel Lightsey and Georgia plant quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson.

FDA inspectors found remarkably bad conditions inside Parnell's processing plant in Blakely, Ga., including mold and roaches, and the company went bankrupt after the recall.

"When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk," Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Division, said in a news release. "The Department of Justice 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."

The indictment accused the Parnells and Lightsey of conspiring to defraud customers and obtain money through false and fraudulent pretenses. Wilkerson was charged with obstruction of justice.

A phone call and email to Stewart Parnell's attorney, Thomas Bondurant Jr., was not immediately returned. Reached by phone, Lightsey said he had no comment and referred questions to his lawyer, who did not return a call.

The indictment alleged the conspiracy lasted from about June 2003 through February 2009 and that peanut products were shipped after testing positive for salmonella.

Stewart Parnell, who invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before Congress in February 2009, once directed employees to "turn them loose" after samples of peanuts had tested positive for salmonella and then were cleared in a second test, according to e-mail uncovered at the time by congressional investigators.

The indictment cited emails sent between defendants talking about contamination in the product.

A federal judge in 2010 approved a $12 million insurance settlement for more than 100 salmonella victims.

Even President Barack Obama expressed concern at the height of the product recalls, noting that his daughter Sasha ate peanut butter for lunch as often as three times a week.

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