Federal authorities have charged the former owner of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and several employees with fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
BLAKELY, Ga. — Federal authorities have charged the former owner of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) and several employees with fraud, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
The 76-count indictment was unsealed Wednesday charging four former officials of PCA and a related company with allegations relating to salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
Stewart Parnell, 58 of Lynchburg, Va.; Michael Parnell, 54, of Midlothian, Va.; and Samuel Lightsey, 48, of Blakely 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. Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson, 39, of Edison were also charged with obstruction of justice.
Lightsey was operations manager at the Blakely plant from 2008 until 2009. Wilkerson held a variety of positions at the Blakely plant including receptionist, office manager and quality assurance manager.
Also on Wednesday, an "information" was filed against Daniel Kilgore, 44, of Blakely, charging him with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.
Kilgore, who was operations manager of the Blakely plant from 2002 to 2008, admitted to fraud, conspiracy and introduction of adulterated food into commerce, prosecutors said.
According to the Justice Department, investigation into the activity at PCA began in 2009, after the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a national outbreak of salmonella to a PCA plant in Blakey as the likely source. The plant produced roasted and granulated peanuts, peanut butter and other peanut products and sold them to customers nationally.
Federal prosecutors on Thursday alleged the group covered up the presence of salmonella in its peanut products for years, going so far as to create fake certificates showing the products were uncontaminated even when laboratory results showed the reverse.
"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," said Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Division. "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 sandwich."
The charges carry penalties of up to 20 years in jail, although none carry a mandatory minimum sentence, prosecutors said.
The peanut salmonella scandal led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Federal health officials said 700 people in 46 states were infected, with nine deaths. PCA was liquidated after the outbreak and is no longer in business.
Lawyers from Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore LLP, who represent Stewart Parnell, said in a statement they were disappointed that the government had decided to pursue an indictment and were planning a "vigorous defense."
"While Mr. Parnell and others associated with PCA have to date remained silent on the circumstances surrounding the government's salmonella investigation, as this matter progresses it will become clear that Mr. Parnell never intentionally shipped or caused to be shipped any tainted food products capable of harming PCA's customers," his attorneys said.
Their statement also said U.S. health regulators were regularly in contact with PCA about its food handling policy and were well aware of its salmonella testing protocols, and made no objection to the testing policies or protocols in place.
At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, Delery said company officials had lied to inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which found that PCA produced peanuts under unsanitary conditions and failed to take adequate precautions to keep rodents and insects out of its plant in Blakely.
William Marler, an attorney who represented victims of the contamination, said the indictments will have a far reaching impact on the food industry.
"Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters the stream of commerce," he said. "Felony counts like this one are rare, but misdemeanor charges that can include fines and jail time can and should happen."
Those affected by the outbreak welcomed news of the 76-count indictment.
"I'm ecstatic," said Jeff Almer, whose mother died after eating tainted peanut butter. "I would equate it to wishing for something to happen more than anything else you ever wanted in life, and waiting years for it to occur."
"This has been my life's mission for the last four years since my mom died — to try to get some justice," he said.