For victims, tainted peanut butter trial a chance for justice

Tainted peanut butter killed three Minnesotans six years ago. Now, the trial against food executives brings hope of justice.

Maya Rao of the Minnesota Star Tribune writes that six years after Shirley Mae Almer died from eating a slice of toast topped with tainted peanut butter, the Almer family is at last sensing justice could finally be at hand.

PCA.AIB.certificateThey are making plans to fly to Albany, Ga., to attend an extraordinary trial of three executives of a now-bankrupt peanut butter company that was the source of a salmonella outbreak that became one of the deadliest of its kind in the country in recent years. More than 700 people were sickened and nine were killed, including three in Minnesota.

“It was a long wait,” Ginger Lorentz said from her house in Brainerd, where what she described as her Finnish mother’s sisu — spiritedness — still lingers at the dining room table where she hosted lively meals with friends and in the goofy photo of her dressed up with her dog for July 4th.

On Friday, as the trial began, prosecutors framed the case as one of a company so driven by profit that its leaders were willing to ship peanuts they knew were tainted to customers around the country. Prosecutors presented an e-mail from the former president, saying, “ … just ship it. I cannot afford to lose another customer.” The defense said that the owner struggled to keep up with day-to-day operations but that his inability to do so “is not a crime.”

Stewart Parnell, former chief executive of the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America, and two other executives face a 76-count indictment in connection with the salmonella outbreak.

Barbara Flatgard, who lost her mother in 2009, said she doubts the defendants will see any prison time, “but just what an accomplishment [it is] that we at least got them charged.”

Lorentz saw Parnell years ago, at a Congressional hearing in which he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. She is determined to see him again at the trial this summer — to catch any sign of remorse, to hear some word of apology.

“I would like to see him in jail for the rest of his life,” she said.