According to the indictment, Peanut Corp. included Mexican and Argentine peanut paste in products shipped to a multinational food products company in Battle Creek, Mich., but said it was all from the United States. The indictment does not name the company, but Kellogg's is based in Battle Creek and Kellogg's Austin and Keebler peanut butter sandwich crackers were part of the massive recall.
The indictment also says Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson gave untrue or misleading statements to FDA investigators who visited the plant as the outbreak was unfolding, leading to the obstruction of justice charges.
Parnell's attorneys said in a statement after the indictment was unsealed that they are disappointed that the government has decided to pursue the case after four years and charged that the FDA knew about the company's salmonella testing and had not objected.
"At this point, we will evaluate the charges that have been filed against Mr. Parnell and will prepare for a vigorous defense," said attorneys Bill Gust and Tom Bondurant. "There is little doubt that as the facts in this case are revealed, it will become apparent that the FDA was in regular contact with (Peanut Corporation of America) about its food handling policy and was well aware of its salmonella testing protocols."
Parnell himself said more than two years ago that he wanted the criminal investigation resolved one way or another.
"I feel like I wish they'd come on and do what they're going to do," Parnell told The Associated Press in 2010. "I'd like to get this behind me."
At the time of that interview, Parnell had returned to the industry as a consultant brokering peanut equipment sales, angering families who were hoping he would be charged. It is unclear if he has still been doing that consulting.
Jim Parkman, a lawyer for Lightsey, said nothing in the indictment surprises him and he is eager to defend his client.
"I'm glad it finally came out so we can get this cleared up and clear Sammy's name," he said. "We look forward to getting to a trial where we can finish the story."
More than 700 illnesses in 46 states were linked to the outbreak, though the actual number of victims is likely much higher. The company shipped to many large and small companies around the country, and around 3,500 products were recalled.
Families of the victims had been pushing the government for four years to hold Parnell and the others responsible.
Randy Napier's mother died in 2009 after eating peanut butter at an assisted living facility in Ohio. Along with other victims' families, he has kept in touch with the Justice Department and pressured them to bring charges.
"I had begun to give up hope," Napier said after learning of the indictment. "It's hard to put into words. We have waited so long for this."
Michael Moore, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said the probe took so many years to complete because the defendants attempted to conceal their actions and because thousands of documents had to be reviewed.
"These defendants cared less about the quality of the food they were providing to the American people and more about the quantity of money they were gathering while disregarding food safety," Moore said.
A federal judge in 2010 approved a $12 million insurance settlement for more than 100 salmonella victims.
Kate Brumback reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Steve Szkotak in Richmond, Va., and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.
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