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Former Peanut Plant Officials Charged in Salmonella Outbreak

by Josh Long -

WASHINGTON—Former officials with the defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) face several charges of violating federal law in connection with a Salmonella outbreak that caused nine deaths and more than 700 illnesses in 2008 and 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Federal authorities contend the former officials mislead customers about the presence of Salmonella in peanut products that were sold to them, fabricating documents that stated shipments of peanut products contained no pathogens when no tests were conducted or lab results showed the presence of Salmonella. The former officials also have been accused of lying to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors following a widespread outbreak that caught lawmakers' attention.

The Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak was traced back to PCA's plant in Blakeley, Ga., and was linked to 714 reported illnesses in 46 states and nine deaths in Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk," Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Division, said in a statement. "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."

Stewart Parnell, 58, who was the company’s owner and president, is among three individuals who have been charged with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy. Others who face the same charges include Michael Parnell, 54, who worked on behalf of PCA as a food broker; and Samuel Lightsey, 48, who served as an operations manager at the Blakely plant. Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and former PCA official Mary Wilkerson also were charged with obstruction of justice.

Former operations manager of the PCA plant Daniel Kilgore pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud, introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead and conspiracy.

Four years ago, the FDA released an inspection report that cited 12 instances in which the plant's own internal testing revealed Salmonella contamination in some of its products. The outbreak led to a number of lawsuits, with a federal judge recommending in 2010 a $12 million settlement for victims who died or fell ill.

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