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.

U.S. Congressional questions better than Canadian food safety silence

Elizabeth Payne, of the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board, writes that when the president of Peanut Corp. of America was hauled in front of a congressional hearing in Washington last week, Canadians should have been paying attention.

And cringing.

Few things have underlined the gap in the way our two countries approach food safety like the sight of company president Stewart Parnell sitting with arms folded while a congressman, in a theatrical flourish, offered him some of his company’s tainted peanut products. Mr. Parnell’s company is at the centre of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 600 people and may have killed eight in recent months.

On this side of the border, Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods was named Business News Maker of the Year — a year in which his company was found to be the source of a listeriosis outbreak linked to 20 deaths and hundreds of illnesses. To be fair, Mr. McCain took responsibility in a way that Peanut Corp. executives did not. He deserved recognition for his compassion and efforts to reassure a rattled public that it was safe to go back to the deli counter.

But that should not be the end of the story. The aggressive effort in the U.S. to quickly get questions answered about the tainted peanut outbreak there is instructive.

Payne goes on to say that already Americans know more about the mechanics and timeline of this salmonella outbreak than Canadians do about the gaps and failures than may have exacerbated the listeriosis outbreak.

Nearly seven months later, Canadians still don’t know exactly who knew what when. There have been no answers to the crucial question of whether a quicker response could have saved lives and how a similar tragedy could be prevented or contained sooner. Until we know that, nothing has been learned from the 20 deaths. Instead of answers, we got a PR campaign, tasteless cold-cut jokes and a toothless and too-late investigation into what happened.

Peanut Corp. president keeps quiet amidst accusations that he put profits before safety

After e-mails released in today’s U.S. Congressional oversight and investigation subcommittee hearing revealed the sentiments of Peanut Corp. of America’s president, Stewart Parnell, toward the company’s microbial testing, the Associated Press reported,

Parnell sat stiffly, his hands folded in his lap at the witness table, as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held up a clear jar of his company’s products wrapped in crime scene tape and asked him if he would be willing to eat the food.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectively decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution," Parnell said.

After repeating the statement several times, he was dismissed from the hearing.

Sammy Lightsey, his plant manager also invoked his right not to testify when he appeared alongside Parnell before the subcommittee.

As the hearing opened this morning, the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution reported,

Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, admonished company executives sitting in the crowd, saying they could invoke their Fifth Amendment rights not to testify, but that doesn’t protect them from justice if they’re found guilty of wrongdoing.

Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, was quoted as saying, “This company cared more about its financial bottom line than it did about the safety of its customers.”

According to the AP, the president of one company that tested products for Peanut Corp. spoke to the House panel.

Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories Inc., said his company was among those that tested Peanut Corp. of America’s products and notified the Georgia plant that salmonella was found in some of its peanut stock.

"It is not unusual for Deibel Labs or other food testing laboratories to find that samples clients submit do test positive for salmonella and other pathogens, nor is it unusual that clients request that samples be retested," Deibel said. "What is virtually unheard of is for an entity to disregard those results and place potentially contaminated products into the stream of commerce."

Peanut Corp. president urged shipping tainted nuts

It’s as bad as it gets.

Early reporting from today’s U.S. Congressional oversight and investigation subcommittee hearing where Peanut Corp. of America President Stewart Parnell was forced to appear and is expected to take the Fifth Amendment and not testify, depicts a company focused on profits rather than food safety.

E-mails between Parnell and Sammy Lightsey, manager of the company’s Blakely plant, were released as part of a congressional hearing that started at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

• In one e-mail, Lightsey wrote Parnell discussing positive salmonella tests on its products, but Parnell gave instructions to nonetheless “turn them loose” after getting a negative test result from another testing company.

• In another e-mail, Parnell expressed his concerns over the losing “$$$$$$” due to delays in shipment and costs of testing.

• Parnell in another company-wide e-mail told employees there was no salmonella in its plants, instead accusing the news media of “looking for a news story where there currently isn’t one.”

On Jan. 19, Parnell sent an e-mail to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pleading with the agency to let it stay in business.

He wrote that company executives “desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money.”

Other revelations underpinning the Salmonella outbreak:

• The Georgia Department of Agriculture conducted two inspections of the company’s Blakely, Ga. plant in 2008, but did not test for salmonella on its own on either occasion — despite an internal agency goal to conduct such tests once a year.

• The company’s largest customers, including Kellogg’s, engaged contractors to conduct audits, but they did not conduct their own salmonella tests.

*The FDA did not test for salmonella at the plant, despite the 2007 salmonella outbreak traced to the Con-Agra plant about 70 miles from Peanut Corp. of America’s Blakely plant.