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Officials of Peanut Corporation of America indicted in contamination case

3:06 PM, Feb 21, 2013   |    comments
In this Jan. 29, 2009 file photo, an Early County, Ga. Sheriff's car sits parked in front of the the Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Blakely, Ga. A federal grand jury indicted four employees of a peanut company, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds. The indictment was unsealed in federal court in Georgia and charges four employees with Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Four former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America were named in a 75-count indictment Thursday on charges related to salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products.

The charges cap an inquiry that began in 2009 after the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control traced a national outbreak of salmonella to a PCA plant in Blakely, Ga. The plant operated as a roasting facility where PCA produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste, which were sold to customers around the country.

Named in the indictment: brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell, PCA president and vice president; Samuel Lightsey, plant operations manager; and Mary Wilkerson, plant quality assurance manager.

The Parnell brothers and Lightsey have been charged with conspiracy mail and wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson also were charged with obstruction of justice.

"The indictment alleges that PCA officials affirmatively lied to their customers about the presence of salmonella in PCA's products,'' said Stuart Delery, principal deputy assistant attorney general.

Delery also said some officials at PCA, no longer in business, fabricated lab results certifying to customers that the products were salmonella free "even when tests showed the presence of salmonella or when no tests had been done at all.''

The salmonella outbreak sickened 714 people in 46 states and may have contributed to nine deaths, the CDC reported. The illnesses began in January of 2009 and led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, involving thousands of products.

Lou Tousignant, whose father, Clifford Tousignant, died after eating contaminated peanut butter from PCA, said he has been waiting four years for the results of the inquiry.

"This is a good day," he said from his office in Walnut Creek, Calif. "I'm an emotional train wreck, this is bringing it all back," he said. His 80-year-old father had been in an assisted living facility in Brainard, Minn. A diabetic, he ate peanut butter every night to keep his blood sugar steady while he slept.

Tousignant said while there's been much movement on food safety with the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011, new regulations aren't what will bring about change.

"If you knowingly do something and send it out and then go to prison - that will make people think twice," said Tousignant, 43. "It will come down to whether (Parnell) is convicted. I think this is definitely a step in the right direction."

The defendants face maximum prison sentences of up to 20 years.

An FDA inspection of the plant found dirty, unsanitary conditions. The company's own testing had found salmonella contamination, but it continued to ship its products, according to the FDA.

In some instances, the company had the product tested again by a different laboratory and got a clean test result, FDA officials said.

When the outbreak hit, PCA supplied 2.5% of the nation's peanut products, including peanut butter sold to institutions and paste and meal used in foods made by hundreds of companies. It was used to make peanut cookies, candies, ice cream, crackers and snacks.

Once the outbreak became public, the plant recalled everything it had made since 2007. John Roth, director of the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, said that 2,100 products from 200 companies were recalled.

At the time, William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner, called the outbreak "a poster child for everything that went wrong" with the USA's food-safety system. "Down the line, you can find flaws and failures," he told USA TODAY.

Kevin Johnson and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

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