January 20, 2018

Peanut Corporation of America Trial Begins

The trial of executives of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) began last Friday in Albany, Georgia. Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson are on trial for 76 felony counts that include allegations of fraud and conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and causing unbranded and adulterated peanut butter and paste to be placed in interstate commerce. No one is being charged with directly causing death in the huge Salmonella outbreak six years ago.

GavelsThe peanut products produced by PCA were contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. In late 2008 and early 2009, at least 714 people were sickened by PCA products across the country. Nine people died in this outbreak. The son of one of those people who died, Nellie Napier, was a Pritzker Olsen client. Randy Napier became an advocate for food safety after this outbreak.

The jury was told that Stewart Parnell sent a message to employees who wanted to know what to do when lab tests on the company’s products were positive for Salmonella. “Just ship it,” was the reply. In fact, peanut paste was shipped before the results for bacterial testing were received, with negative lab tests from earlier batches attached to reassure customers. When positive test results came back, the company did not notify its customers.

The prosecution also told the jury about a company process called “pre-dipping.” Apparently, employees took multiple samples from the same product lot for testing, then falsified the lot numbers to make it look like all of the lots were tested for pathogenic bacteria. Those false tests were then sent to customers. Products from PCA’s Georgia plant tested positive for Salmonella since at least 2003, according to prosecution statements.

There are very few criminal prosecutions against food manufacturers who ship contaminated product that causes an outbreak. Attorney Fred Pritzker said about the trial, “It’s only going to serve as a deterrent if there’s enough of it for people to think that it could happen to them.”  Pritzker helped families win a settlement in 2010. The FDA can charge corporate executives with crimes, but the agency rarely uses that power. 

The defense’s opening statement was mainly about his client’s long history in the peanut industry. He also said that there is no legal requirement for re-testing for Salmonella.

Two former managers of PCA’s Georgia plant have already pled guilty to charges of conspiracy, interstate shipment fraud, wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead . They are going to testify for the prosecution in this case. Samuel Lightsey was the former processing plant manager, and Daniel Kilgore was PCA’s operation manager from 2008 to 2009 at the Georgia plant.

 

 

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