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.

Salmonella-in-peanut paste poster boy fights to restrict release of records

The former president of the Lynchburg-based peanut company at the heart of a food-poisoning outbreak that sickened more than 700 and killed at least nine people, is going back to court to keep investigators away from company records.

The News & Advance reports that Stewart Parnell asked a judge earlier this month to stop the lawyer who administered Peanut Corp. of America’s bankruptcy from turning over records to the Department of Justice. Parnell claims some of those records may contain emails to his lawyer that shouldn’t be used against him in a criminal case.

Parnell and Peanut Corp. were subjects of Food and Drug Administration and congressional investigations, and by late January 2009, the Department of Justice and the FDA announced a criminal investigation. Parnell appeared before a congressional subcommittee on Feb. 9, 2009, but invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Throughout Feb. 2009, federal agents raided the company’s manufacturing plants and Parnell’s home, which also served as the Peanut Corp. headquarters, seizing documents and computer records. Some of those records made their way to the bankruptcy trustee to help him pay out what was left of the company’s assets.

Parnell’s lawyers note he has not been indicted and has not received a “target letter” sometimes sent to subjects of federal investigations. Spokeswomen for the FDA and for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Macon, Ga., would not comment about the matter Tuesday except to say the investigation is ongoing.

Peanut plant previously cited for violtions

The New York Times is reporting the peanut processing plant at the center of a salmonella outbreak that has killed seven and sickened over 500 in 43 American States and Canada had “a history of sanitation lapses and was cited repeatedly in 2006 and 2007 for having dirty surfaces and walls and grease residue and dirt build-up throughout the plant, according to state health inspection reports.”

The inspection reports were provided by Georgia officials in response to a request made by The New York Times under the state’s open records act. State officials said they could not release two recent inspection reports from 2008 because of the ongoing investigation into the plant. …

Inspections of the plant in Blakely, Ga., by the state agriculture department found areas of rust that could flake into food, gaps in warehouse doors large enough for rodents to get through, unmarked spray bottles and containers, and numerous violations of other practices designed to prevent food contamination. The plant, owned by Peanut Corporation of America of Lynchburg, Va., has been shut down.