Peanut Corp. of America Officers Indicted

It’s taken four or five years, but the U.S. Dept. of Justice on Feb. 21 indicted four employees of Peanut Corp. of America, formerly of Lynchburg, Va., charging they knowingly shipped salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products in 2008 and 2009, which led to massive product recalls and nine deaths.

Charged were Stewart Parnell, former president and CEO; Michael Parnell, a food broker associated with the company; Samuel Lightsey, operations manager at PCA’s Blakely, Ga., plant (source of the contamination); and Mary Wilkerson, who worked as a receptionist, office manager and quality assurance manager at the plant. In all, there were 76 counts in an indictment that had been delivered by a grand jury in Albany, Ga.

The company went bankrupt after the contamination incident.

In an earlier report we carried, the FDA reported the facility identified the presence of salmonella on 12 occasions during 2007 and 2008. Instead of destroying the product and investigating further, the company sent out second samples that came up negative, so the peanut products were released to customers that included Kellogg, General Mills and Ralcorp.

Even when the salmonella strain was identified as coming from a particular PCA peanut paste line, “The firm continued to manufacture peanut paste in this system … to the beginning of this inspection on 1/9/09,” an FDA citation said.

Both Parnells and Lightsey were charged with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy. Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson were charged with obstruction of justice.

The DOJ also revealed that Daniel Kilgore, former operations manager at the Blakely plant 2002-2008, pleaded guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead and conspiracy.

In addition to the nine deaths, at least 691 people in 46 states, half of them children, fell ill due to food poisoning.

A lawyer for one of the defendants was quoted as saying the FDA was in regular contact with PCA about its food handling policy and was aware of its Salmonella testing protocols.

Stewart and Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore are alleged to have fabricated certificates of analysis accompanying various shipments of peanut products.

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