From staff and wire reports
WASHINGTON — Four former peanut company employees have been charged with scheming to manufacture and ship salmonella-tainted peanuts that killed nine, including a Medina woman, sickened hundreds and prompted one of the largest recalls in history.
One of the nine was 80-year-old Nellie Napier, who died in 2009 after eating contaminated peanut butter at an nursing home in Medina.
The indictment by a federal grand jury in Georgia is a rare move by the federal government after an outbreak connected to food. Justice Department officials said Thursday it serves as a warning to food manufacturers who may compromise consumer safety in search of higher profits.
“When food or drug manufacturers lie and cut corners, they put all of us at risk,” Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said at a news conference. “The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
The 76-count indictment was unsealed late Wednesday in federal court in Albany, Ga. It accuses Peanut Corp. of America owner Stewart Parnell, his brother Michael Parnell and Georgia plant manager Samuel Lightsey with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead.
Michael Parnell was a food broker who worked with the company.
Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson also were charged with obstruction of justice. The conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.
The Justice Department said a fifth employee pleaded guilty to similar charges in a separate case.
Families of the victims had been pushing the government for four years to hold peanut company officials responsible.
Randy Napier, Nellie Napier’s son, has kept in touch with the Justice Department and pressured it to bring charges.
“I had begun to give up hope,” Napier said after learning of the indictment. “It’s hard to put into words. We have waited so long for this.”
Napier visited Washington four times to lobby Congress to approve the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is designed to give the Food and Drug Administration more authority over the nation’s food supply and greater ability to trace contaminated food. The act was approved in January 2011, but it has been slow to be implemented.
“If this had been in effect when the peanut butter first came out, my mom would definitely still be here because it took so long to trace the contamination and the FDA did not have the authority to issue a recall,” Napier said after President Barack Obama signed the law.
Nellie Napier died on Jan. 26, 2009.
Criminal charges are rare in food outbreak cases because intentional adulteration is often hard to prove and companies often step up and acknowledge their mistakes.
Widespread outbreaks like the salmonella in peanuts in 2009 are becoming more common as food companies ship all over the country and the world.
Investigations are pending into two other large outbreaks in recent years — an outbreak of salmonella in eggs in 2010 and an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe in 2011 that was linked to more than 30 deaths.
The conditions at Peanut Corp. of America — and the employees’ alleged attempts to conceal them — appear more pronounced than most. Food and Drug Administration inspectors found remarkably bad conditions inside the processing plant in Blakely, Ga., including mold, roaches and a leaky roof.
According to email uncovered by congressional investigators shortly after the outbreak, Parnell, who invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before Congress in February 2009, once directed employees to “turn them loose” after samples of peanuts had tested positive for salmonella and were then cleared in another test.
The indictment 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 went as far fabricating certificates accompanying some of the peanut shipments saying they were safe when tests said otherwise.
According to the indictment, Peanut Corp. included Mexican and Argentine peanut paste in products shipped to a multinational food products company in Battle Creek, Mich., but said it was all from the United States. The indictment does not name the company, but Kellogg Corp. is based in Battle Creek and Kellogg’s Austin and Keebler peanut butter sandwich crackers were part of the massive recall.
The indictment also says Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson gave untrue or misleading statements to FDA investigators who visited the plant as the outbreak was unfolding, leading to the obstruction of justice charges.
Parnell’s attorneys said in a statement after the indictment was unsealed that they are disappointed that the government has decided to pursue the case after four years and charged that the FDA knew about the company’s salmonella testing and had not objected.
“At this point, we will evaluate the charges that have been filed against Mr. Parnell and will prepare for a vigorous defense,” said attorneys Bill Gust and Tom Bondurant.
“There is little doubt that as the facts in this case are revealed, it will become apparent that the FDA was in regular contact with (Peanut Corp. of America) about its food handling policy and was well aware of its salmonella testing protocols.”
Parnell himself said more than two years ago that he wanted the criminal investigation resolved one way or another.
“I feel like I wish they’d come on and do what they’re going to do,” Parnell told The Associated Press in 2010. “I’d like to get this behind me.”