Faith-based food safety: Georgia peanut plant chief says we faked Salmonella tests

A Georgia peanut plant manager testified Friday that his company had been shipping contaminated nuts with fake documents showing them to be salmonella-free before the plant was identified as the source of a nationwide outbreak that killed nine Americans and sickened more than 700.

peanut“In my mind, I wasn’t intentionally hurting anyone,” Sammy Lightsey told jurors at the trial of his former boss, Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, and two others.

Lightsey, who managed the plant from July 2008 until the company went bankrupt following the outbreak in 2009, pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in May after agreeing to testify for prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. He was the top manager at the peanut plant, reporting directly to Stewart Parnell.

Soon after taking the job, Lightsey said, he discovered that peanut paste was being shipped to Kellogg’s for use in peanut butter crackers the same day they were produced, without waiting the 48 hours it takes to receive results of lab tests for salmonella and other contaminants.

Rather than wait, Lightsey said, the plant would ship paste with lab results that actually came from different batches tested a week earlier, certifying they were negative for salmonella.

Lightsey said he confronted Michael Parnell, who handled the contract for Kellogg, one of the company’s biggest customers.

“I went to the office and called Mike Parnell and I told him we can’t do this; it was illegal and it was wrong,” Lightsey said. “He informed me it was set up before I got there and don’t worry about Kellogg’s, he can handle Kellogg’s.”

Lightsey said he didn’t push the issue further. He didn’t say if he ever discussed the fake lab results with Stewart Parnell.

In a related story, Russ Bynum of TribTown writes that jurors are learning a disconcerting fact: America’s food safety largely depends on the honor system.

“Could all these people have been charged criminally with something? The answer is, hell yes,” said Bill Marler, an attorney who claims to have won $500 million for victims of foodborne illnesses over the past two decades.

“I’m a firm believer in using the civil justice system to hold people accountable. But these criminal prosecutions have really got people’s attention,” said Marler. “It’s a completely different viewpoint that these CEOs and managers have when they’re facing jail time and fines that aren’t insured.”

Meanwhile, the FDA lacks the resources to regularly inspect food producers, and when outbreaks happen, they largely depend on their goodwill to find the source.

FDA agent: Peanut plant ‘not fit’ to produce food

So why was this only discovered after the outbreak that killed nine and sickened 700 with Salmonella?

peanutA federal food safety inspector who investigated a deadly Salmonella outbreak linked to a Georgia peanut plant says the company was “not fit to produce products for human consumption.”

Janet Gray of the Food and Drug Administration testified Wednesday in the federal trial of three people charged with covering up contamination at the Peanut Corp. of America plant, and knowingly shipping infected nuts to customers.

Gray described company records for the jury that showed at least eight times when nuts were shipped after testing positive for Salmonella. And she said equipment at the plant wasn’t cleaned even after the Salmonella showed up.

Jurors hear from FDA investigator in Salmonella trial

Jurors in the Salmonella trial heard from the first witness who had direct contact with two of the defendants Tuesday. A Food and Drug Administration investigator testified about what she found inside a Blakely peanut plant.

PCA.AIB.certificateAfter the CDC traced a salmonella outbreak to King Nut Peanut Butter made in Blakely, FDA investigator Janet Gray was sent to the plant.

She testified that plant officials hindered the investigation by covering up what they knew about Salmonella tests. Janet Gray spent more than three hours on the stand today.

The FDA sent Gray to Blakely after the deadly salmonella outbreak was traced back to products from the Peanut Corporation of America plant there.

She says Samuel Lightsey, the former plant manager who pleaded guilty to charges in this case, told here the plant only failed one salmonella test, but a retest came back negative.

With prosecutors questioning, Gray explained a diagram that she drew while investigating PCA’s manufacturing practices, it was the jury’s first look inside the plant.

As the FDA’s investigation continued in early 2009, Lightsey let on about a few more positive tests. Gray said PCA initially hid those results which prevented the FDA from broadening their investigation that only focused on peanut butter at the time.

Lightsey said Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson would know about other positives because they had been there longer., Albany News, Weather, Sports


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.

PCA e-mails tell the tale in peanut poisoning trial

E-mails amongst executives of Peanut Corporation of America are shedding fresh light on an often assumed problem: profit is more important than safety, until you get caught.

peanutIn 2009, over 700 people were sickened and nine died from Salmonella Typhimurium linked to peanut paste and butter produced by the Peanut Corporation of America.

An auditor with the Manhattan, Kansas, based American Institute of Baking was responsible for evaluating the safety of products produced by PCA. The peanut company knew in advance when the auditors were arriving. “The overall food safety level of this facility was considered to be: SUPERIOR,” the auditor concluded in his March 27, 2008, report for AIB. State inspectors also found only minor problems.

New disclosures from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveal that with a shipping deadline fast approaching, an employee at the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Ga., wanted to know what should be done with an order that hadn’t been tested for Salmonella. The email response from the company’s president was succinct.

“(Expletive), just ship it,” Stewart Parnell wrote. “I can’t afford to lose another customer.”

A month later, the same employee had a similar query. This time, Parnell was even more direct.

“SHIP,” he wrote.

Parnell’s words, written seven years ago, will take on new life in an Albany courtroom in the coming weeks as federal prosecutors try to use them and other email messages to send the former peanut executive to prison.

In a trial that started with jury selection Monday and is expected to last two months, the government will argue that Parnell willfully directed his company to sell products that killed nine people and sickened more than 700.

“Seldom does a plant owner or manager knowingly sell a contaminated product,” said Michael Doyle, who directs the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. “And so I think (Peanut Corp.) is being used as a poster child, you might say, letting producers and processors know they can’t do that sort of thing and expect to get away with it, not only in this country but internationally.” famously refused to answer questions in front of a congressional subcommittee, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination even when one committee member held up a jar of products made from the company’s peanuts wrapped in yellow crime tape and asked the disgraced executive if he would eat them.

As the publicity grew, Peanut Corp. filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations.

“Peanut butter is a high-risk product, consumed by elderly people and kids,” Doyle said. “When salmonella gets in a product like that, many people can become seriously ill.”

Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney who represented victims and families affected by the Peanut Corp. products, said he believes the case against Stewart Parnell and his colleagues can be different.

“What makes this case powerful is the company, if you believe the emails and the testing results, made a decision to ship products into interstate commerce knowing that it tested positive for salmonella,” he said. “They would get a positive sample and a negative sample, choose to believe the negative sample and ship it.”

Emails in government court filings — many of them undisclosed previously — depict Parnell and others as willing to gamble with public health to keep sales moving.

Food safety assholes: man pleads guilty in PCA salmonella outbreak case

In 2009, over 700 people were sickened and nine died from Salmonella Typhimurium linked to peanut paste and butter produced by the Peanut Corporation of America.

An auditor with the Manhattan, Kansas, based American Institute of Baking was responsible for evaluating the safety of products produced by PCA. The peanut company knew in advance when the auditors were arriving. “The overall food safety level of this facility was considered to be: SUPERIOR,” the auditor concluded in his March 27, 2008, report for AIB. State inspectors also found only minor problems.

vonnegut-assholeSamuel Lightsey was the manager of Peanut Corporation of America’s plant in Blakely, Georgia, when an outbreak of salmonella traced to the company’s peanuts killed nine people and sickened hundreds in 2009. Lightsey and three others were later charged with scheming to manufacture and ship tainted peanuts.

Lightsey faces a possible fine of up to $250,000 and maximum prison terms of one to 20 years on each of the seven charges. Prosecutors recommended in a plea agreement that Lightsey serve no more than six years in prison. He will be sentenced at a later date.

Also charged in the case are Peanut Corporation owner Stewart Parnell, his food broker brother Michael Parnell, and Georgia plant quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson.

The indictment unsealed in February 2013 says the company misled its customers about the existence of salmonella in its product, even when lab tests showed it was present. It says the co-workers even fabricated certificates accompanying some of the peanut shipments saying they were safe when tests said otherwise.

The company later went bankrupt.

An Italian view on food safety responsibility and law

This column initially appeared in the Italian publication, On promoteus, where food safety friend and consultant Luca Bucchini has a weekly column called Food Wars. An edited version appears below.

In early 2009, an American manufacturer of peanut butter and other peanut-based ingredients such as paste, ordered one of the most impressive  recalls in recent years.

The recall involved 3900 products, since as many as 350 different companies used ingredients by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

It was not precautionary action: the contamination of peanut butter with Salmonella Typhymurium was already spreading infection and death across promoteus.luca.may.13United States. According to estimates, at least 714 people were eventually sickened, alog with nine deaths.

Investigations later showed that PCA had obtained analytical results from external laboratories that confirmed the presence of the pathogen earlier than the recall was ordered, but managers decided to ignore them and hide them from their customers. Management even went so far as to invent false analytical results, altering those with unwelcome results and inventing results of tests never made.

If all this is true, it is difficult to disagree with the intention of the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute and potentially have those responsible jailed. Meanwhile, PCA is bankrupt, and some managers have since explained that financial concerns contributed to a delayed recall and falsified results.

Leaders of food companies are sometimes, though rarely, forced to make a choice: consumers’ lives or corporate survival.

That decision is influenced by moral fiber, courage, and legal incentives.

If a similar case occurs in the Belpaese (Italy, aka the beautiful country), two things are likely to happen. First, if cases were not very concentrated geographically, and the number of cases were a bit less dramatic, from the epidemiological side (epidemiologists collect data on cases of disease and try to interpret them, but they must have an effective surveillance system to do their job) there would be no alert. Second, if the contamination had become known somehow by the authorities, with or without illness, managers would have faced criminal charges.

In Italy’s system, with a few recent exceptions, a company’s relevant manager is criminally responsible for the contamination of food, regardless of causes. European food law imposes a duty on same manager to immediately report to the authority and to take action to recall food as soon as he or she discovers that their food, despite all efforts, is found to be contaminated.

Since for the Italian mentality, prevention is less important than doling out punishment for cases of the disease, who communicates to authorities that their company’s food is contaminated may bring upon herself or himself a criminal trial.

It is not uncommon to hear QA managers of food companies (to whom legal responsibility has been prudently delegated by higher management) quietly say when in confidence: I would not do it. I’m pretty convinced that, when there is evidence of cases of illness, all would agree to “fall on their sword” and risk criminal charges but rarely, when you have early analytical results, you know with certainty that one of your products is causing illness and sometimes death.

The result is that the incentives in Italy are still too much in favor of providing the public the satisfaction of the pillory, in the rare cases where authorities found that there has been an issue, and not in favour of protecting people’s health.

When draconian laws are urged, does this system favors investment in better detection techniques given the dilemmas posed by to managers when they learn that their own food is contaminated, or does it encourage inertia.

When I think that, in Italy, a manager of a supermarket can be treated as a criminal because the supermarket he supervises unwittingly sold a sausage laced with Salmonella (even if manufactured by another business and even if it is virtually impossible to test each received batch), I much admire those who, if they are aware of the risks, continue to assume responsibility in the food sector.

Nosestretcher alert: After 9 dead, 700 sick from PCA Salmonella, CEO Parnell’s lawyer says ‘I never intentionally harmed anyone’ Victim says ‘I don’t want no peanut butter in my house’

Producers, companies, food service, they are all responsible to serve safe food. Or they’ll get sued.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports today that a year after peanut butter crackers nearly killed him, Claude Ivester still has not fully recovered, and the food safety net remains largely unchanged.

The 74-year-old feels weaker than he did before he contracted salmonella food poisoning. He forgets more. He’s quit his job at a recycling plant. He can’t look at a jar of peanut butter without getting angry.

“I don’t want no peanut butter in my house.”

In Washington, food safety legislation is stuck in Congress, pushed to the Senate back burner by health care.

Meanwhile, criminal investigations into bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America, owner of the plant, and its top executives have produced no charges.