Peanut Corp. president refuses to testify to Congress

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Parnell told workers product was safe, accused media of hyping story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Washington — Peanut Corp. of America knew of salmonella contamination within its Blakely plant even while federal officials were tracking the national salmonella outbreak, but apparently put profits ahead of public safety, according to documents and testimony presented at a congressional subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Families of victims told a House panel stories of sickness and death, while company president Stewart Parnell and Sammy Lightsey, manager of the plant at the center of one of the biggest food poisoning cases in recent history, invoked their Fifth Amendment right to not present self-incriminating evidence.

• For all the latest developments on the peanut crisis and the salmonella outbreak, with an updated list of recalled items, plus background on the scare, go to the AJC's special report:

Parnell and Lightsey declined to even come into the House hearing room while victims told of their dead loved ones killed by salmonella linked to the company’s peanut butter. Later, Parnell and Lightsey refused to answer any questions from committee members — including whether they would eat any of their own products, which one congressman showed off in a plastic container wrapped with yellow caution tape.

Parnell and Lightsey were dimissed from the hearing, and quickly left a House office building refusing to speak to reporters or others.

E-mails between Parnell and Lightsey, manager of the company’s Blakely plant, were released as part of the hearing opened by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of a House subcommittee on oversight and investigation.

• 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, according to testimony.

• In another e-mail, Parnell expressed his concerns over 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.”

Even in the heat of the nationwide outbreak that has killed eight people and sickened hundreds more, Parnell seemed more worried about his company’s profits than with the food safety, according to regulators and congressional investigators.

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.”

Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Gainesville), said the company’s actions have not only hurt consumers and revealed problems with food safety, but also has hammered the peanut industry that is central to Georgia’s economy.

“Right now peanut farmers are poised to plant this year’s crop,” Deal said. “The uncertainty created by the actions of PCA will cost them millions of dollars.

“We are all outraged,” Deal said.

Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, accused the company of disregarding safety in its pursuit of profits.

“This company cared more about its financial bottom line than it did about the safety of its customers,” Waxman said in opening statements.

Peanut Corp. officials apparently even got government training two years in how to detect and kill salmonella, but didn’t put it in to practice, according to testimony. After the 2007 salmonella outbreak was traced to a Con-Agra plant about 70 miles from Peanut Corp.’s Blakely plant, state and federal regulators held a series of seminars and classes for the entire peanut industry in Atlanta. Stephen Sundloff, an acting associate commissioner for the FDA, said records show at least four Peanut Corp. workers were registered to attend.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Marietta), admonished company executives, 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.

“If you circumvent the law, or merely take advantage of lax oversight, don’t think you have gamed the system forever,” Gingrey said. “Because justice will catch up with you and you will pay.”

Without hearing PCA’s side of the story yet, Gingrey said evidence makes it appear the company’s pursuit of profits “trumped common sense and morality.

“And for this there will be an accounting,” Gingrey said.

Stupak also revealed other insights into the nationwide salmonella outbreak and the company at the center of it, including:

• 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.

The salmonella outbreak has sickened 600 people and has been linked to the deaths of eight. More than 1,800 products have been recalled.

Jeffrey Almer of Savage, Minn., described how his elderly mother survived lung cancer a brain tumor and other illnesses. Then she died from salmonella poisoning.

“Cancer couldn’t claim her but peanut butter did,” said Almer, who since has formed a nonprofit food safety advocacy group called Safe Tables Our Priority. “Our family feels cheated. My mom should be with us today.”

Lou Tousignant of Minneapolis presented a slideshow featuring his late father, Clifford, in photos with his children and grandchildren. A Korean War veteran, Clifford Tousignant earned three Purple Hearts and served his country for 22 years. Choking back tears, Lou Tousignant said the only thing his father loved more than his country was his family. He died from salmonella poisioning on Jan. 12, shortly after entering a Minnesota nursing home.

“My father was a good man,” Lou Tousignant said. He faithfully served his country. My father died because he ate peanut butter.”

Peter Hurley of Wilsonville, Ore. testified how his 3-year-old son Jacob began vomiting and having bloody diarrhea in early January. Peter and Brandy Hurley took their son to a pediatrician, who told them to give their son his favorite food to try and get him to eat again.

Jacob’s favorite food: Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.

“The very food that we later found was the cause of his poisoning,” Hurley said. “So here we have a boy who is trying to get over food poisoning and one of the foods that would seem safe even to the people in the pediatric medical community is the exact product that is continuing to poison him.”

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), said Wednesday the salmonella outbreak has officially spread from people to animals. He said officials in Oregon have discovered at least one dog who was sickened with salmonella after apparently eating biscuits containing Peanut Corp. of America paste.

In other developments, written testimony revealed that J. Leek Associates Inc. a food testing company in Edenton, N.C, stated that it found salmonella in PCA products in a follow-up test and then tried to warn plant manger Sammy Lightsey about it in early October 2008. Lightsey apparently shipped the products without awaiting test results.

“He paused, said ‘Uh Oh,’ or something to that effect, and then told me he had released the product for shipping,” lab technician Michelle Pronto wrote in response to questions from the congressional committee. “When I asked if he could get it back, he said it was on a truck headed to Utah and rather than getting it back, he would have the product destroyed somewhere out west.”



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