ALBANY — Opening statements were made Friday morning in the federal trial of Peanut Corporation of America co-owner and president Stewart Parnell, his brother Michael Parnell, who worked as a food broker for the company, and PCA employee Mary Wilkerson.
The U.S. government contends that over a period of several years issues with the food-borne pathogen salmonella culminated in a 2009 outbreak of food poisoning which caused the deaths of nine people and sickened hundreds of consumers.
The now defunct PCA sold peanut products primarily to corporate retailers, with food giants such as Kroger, King Nut, Dairy Fresh and Kellogg’s representing the largest clients.
In the 2013 indictment by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Parnell brothers, along with Samuel Lightsey, a former PCA production manager, were 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. All the charges related to salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products from PCA’s Blakely roasting plant. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson were also charged with obstruction of justice.
On the same day the indictment was unsealed, Daniel Kilgore, also a former production manager of the Blakely PCA plant, pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.
In early May, Lightsey pleaded guilty to the charges against him.
Alan Dasher, a prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department, laid out what the government hopes to accomplish during the trial.
Dasher’s presentation to the jury focused on the government’s contention that PCA, through Stewart Parnell’s leadership, illegally avoided and falsified Certificates of Analysis (COA) for various lots of peanut paste and other peanut products. COAs are generated through independent companies which conduct tests for content including pathogens such as e. coli and salmonella.
For the jury’s benefit, Dasher presented a large time-line chart of a period between 2003 and 2008. According to Dasher, the many red dots visible at various dates along the time line represented failed salmonella tests for PCA peanuts.
“You can see the problem with that,” Dasher said. “The heart of the matter is that that PCA had a huge problem with salmonella,”
Dasher told jurors that the government would prove a practice by PCA where phantom lots of peanut paste were created from previous lots which had tested negative for salmonella. The “good” lot had long been shipped, Dasher said, but as retained samples yielded acceptable results, the PCAs were assigned to untested shipments.
Members of the jury were shown a detailed list of peanut specifications testing required by Kellogg’s, including e. coli, salmonella and “coliforms,” a bacterial indicator of the sanitary conditions of food or water. While Kellogg’s also required that peanuts be of a “runner type” and entirely of U.S. origin, Dasher claimed that up to 69 percent of PCA’s shipments to Kellogg’s contained peanuts from Mexico or Argentina.
According to Dasher, PCA deficiencies contributing to its salmonella issues included a leaking roof, cross contamination and a faulty peanut roaster. According to Dasher, consultants with JLA, a microbiological testing agency, advised PCA to “validate” its roaster, but he says that was never done.
“None of those problems were ever fixed,” Dasher said.
Stewart Parnell’s brother, Michael, shared much of the blame for the salmonella issues, according to Dasher, as Stewart Parnell relied heavily on his brother’s advice in the day-to-day operation of the company.
PCA employee Mary Wilkerson, described by Dasher as a “jack of all trades,” obstructed justice when she was shown to have withheld information from FDA inspectors, Dasher said.
Following Dasher’s opening statements, attorney for Stewart Parnell, Tom Bonderant of Richmond Va., spoke on behalf of his client. Bonderant placed much of the blame for the salmonella situation on employees of PCA, saying it was “not a felony” to make mistakes or to place too much trust in employees.
In defense of his client, Bonderant told members of the jury that failure to test a food product for salmonella is actually not illegal.
“It wasn’t illegal then, and it’s not illegal now,” Bonderant said. “The government knew they were retesting and they did nothing. Only after the big congressional thing does (the government) say that retesting for salmonella is bad.”
Further, Bonderant contends there was never an actual contract between Kellogg’s and PCA, but rather between Kellogg’s and P.P. Sales, the company represented by food broker Michael Parnell, and that Kellogg’s itself had never been known to test the peanut paste.
“It’s a lot harder to pick on a big company like Kellogg’s than a small family operation like PCA,” Bonderant said.
Attorneys for Michael Parnell and Mary Wilkerson deferred their opening statements until the evidence against Stewart Parnell has been presented and his defense has responded.