UPDATE 1-US peanut co. feared salmonella loss –hearing

Source of Article:  http://www.reuters.com/article/marketsNews/idUSN1141386520090211?sp=true

 

Wed Feb 11, 2009 2:30pm EST

 

 (Updates throughout with details from hearing)

By Christopher Doering

WASHINGTON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - The president of the U.S. peanut company blamed for a salmonella outbreak refused to answer questions before Congress on Wednesday, while internal company messages showed him complaining about lost profits while the scare was investigated.

The salmonella outbreak traced to a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Georgia, has sickened at least 600 people, more than half of them children, and may have killed eight people.

The contamination has forced one of the biggest food recalls in U.S. history, scared Americans away from one of their favorite foods and brought the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under intense scrutiny.

"Lives were lost and people were sickened because they took a chance, I believe knowingly, with products that were contaminated," said Oregon Republican Representative Greg Walden, who held up a plastic jar filled with recalled products and asked Peanut Corporation of America President Stewart Parnell if he would like to sample them.

Parnell, subpoenaed to appear before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, looked straight ahead with arms folded when called to testify.

"I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution," he said, referring to the right not provide information that could be self-incriminating evidence of illegal action.

California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman displayed internal company e-mails from Parnell. "What they show is this company cared more about its financial bottom line than about the safety of its customers," Waxman said.

One e-mail said the time required to deal with contaminated products, some of which had been shipped, was "costing us huge $$$$" while another said the employees "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."

SELLING PRODUCT ANYWAY

FDA officials say they have evidence that internal tests conducted by Peanut Corporation found 12 instances of salmonella since 2007 at the Blakely facility, but the company sold the product anyway, often after getting new tests that showed no contamination.

As the members of Congress spoke, the FDA released 13 more notifications of recalls, from Atkins Nutritionals Inc to Palmer Candy company. More than 1,800 products have been recalled, either because they were linked to PCA's Blakely, Georgia, plant or because such links could not be ruled out.

The New York Times reported last week that peanut butter sales across the nation were down nearly 25 percent.

FBI officials in Atlanta and Virginia said on Monday they had joined the FDA in a criminal investigation of the company.

Jeffrey Almer of Minnesota, whose mother died of salmonella poisoning, called the Peanut Corporation's actions criminal and asked the committee to help enact tougher food safety regulations.

"Cancer couldn't claim her but peanut butter did," said Almer. "Our family feels cheated. Mom should be here today."

Several bills have been introduced in Congress proposing food safety overhauls. The most popular focus on giving FDA more money and authority and splitting the agency to create a separate organization in charge of food safety.

"Our government failed you. There is no excuse we can offer you," Rep. Jan Schakowsky told the victims. "We will act to make your families safer from this kind of potential killer."

(Writing by Maggie Fox and Christopher Doering; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

 

 

 

 

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