WASHINGTON — Four former peanut company employees have been charged with scheming to manufacture and ship salmonella-tainted peanuts that killed nine, sickened hundreds and prompted one of the largest recalls in history.
The indictment by a federal grand jury in Georgia is a rare move by the federal government after an outbreak connected to food. Justice Department officials said Thursday it serves as a warning to food manufacturers who may compromise consumer safety for higher profits.
“When food or drug manufacturers lie and cut corners, they put all of us at risk,” Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Division, said at a news conference.
The 76-count indictment accuses Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, his brother Michael Parnell, and Georgia plant manager Samuel Lightsey with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead. Michael Parnell was a food broker who worked with the company.
Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson were also charged with obstruction of justice. The conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years.
The Justice Department said a fifth employee had pleaded guilty to similar charges in a separate case.
Criminal charges are rare in food outbreak cases because intentional adulteration is often hard to prove and companies often step up and acknowledge their mistakes. Widespread outbreaks, like the 2009salmonella in peanuts, are becoming more common as food companies ship all over the country and the world.
The conditions at Peanut Corporation of America — and the employees' alleged attempts to conceal them — appear more pronounced than most. Food and Drug Administration inspectors found remarkably bad conditions inside the processing plant in Blakely, Ga., including mold, roaches and a leaky roof. According to e-mail uncovered by congressional investigators shortly after the outbreak, Parnell, who invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before Congress in February 2009, once directed employees to “turn them loose” after samples of peanuts had tested positive for salmonella and were then cleared in another test.
The indictment says the company misled its customers about the existence of salmonella in its product. It says the co-workers even fabricated certificates accompanying shipments.