Peanut Salmonella outbreak plant manager comes clean

A former manager of a south Georgia peanut processing plant blamed for a deadly salmonella outbreak lied to federal investigators to protect the company he worked for but decided to come clean after realizing how many people had been sickened, he testified Thursday.

peanutFood and Drug Administration investigators were inspecting the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely in January 2009. Samuel Lightsey said he lied to those investigators about positive tests for salmonella in the company’s product and about the frequency of testing done at the plant.

“I was trying to play damage control, trying to protect the company,” Lightsey testified at the trial of his former boss and company owner Stewart Parnell, and two others.

Jurors also heard on Thursday from two employees of the Georgia Department of Agriculture and a microbiologist from the FDA, as well as a microbiology supervisor from an FDA regional lab in Arkansas. The judge granted a prosecution request to suspend Lightsey’s testimony for the first part of the day Thursday to allow those four witnesses to testify out of order.

FDA microbiologist Darcy Brillhart described to the jury the process of taking environmental swabs from the throughout the plant in early January 2009. Of the 92 swabs he and another microbiologist took, two from the floor of the plant tested positive for salmonella.

Brillhart testified about various precautions taken to make sure the samples aren’t contaminated or compromised, including wearing protective clothing, using sanitized gloves, keeping the samples at a specified temperature and using specially treated swabs.

Scott Austin, a defense attorney for Stewart Parnell, grilled Brillhart, seeking to discredit him by questioning the fact that he didn’t wear shoe coverings during the plant inspection, kept samples overnight in a hotel fridge where he had no control over the temperature and took few notes.