Salmonella Hearing: Peanut Corp. Owner Takes 5th, But Emails Speak Loud and Clear

The owner of <"">Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) has invoked his 5th Amendment rights, and has refused to testify at a Congressional hearing looking into a massive salmonella outbreak linked to PCA products.  However, in spite of his silence, emails revealed at the hearing are very telling about Stewart Parnell’s role in the salmonella debacle.

Salmonella-tainted peanut butter, peanut paste and other ingredients made by PCA have sickened more than 600 people in 44 states.  Eight people have died in the outbreak.

PCA, which provides ingredients to 85 other food firms, has recalled everything made at its Blakely, Georgia plant since January 2007.  More than 1800 products made by other firms, including the Kellogg Company and General Mills, have also been recalled. The recalls are so widespread that the Food & Drug Administration  (FDA) has even set up an online  database to help consumers track them.  The agency said it expects the recalls to continue, and has cautioned consumers to avoid foods made with peanut butter or paste unless they are sure the ingredients did not come from PCA.

As we reported last month, FDA  inspections of the Georgia plant found that PCA shipped peanuts that tested positive for salmonella contamination at least a dozen times in 2007 and 2008. The inspection also turned up roaches, mold and a leaky roof.

PCA officials told the FDA that tainted peanuts it shipped had tested negative for salmonella in a second round of testing.  But  the FDA reported on Friday that  PCA actually shipped some of the peanuts before the second tests were completed. Other lots were shipped without testing and, in some cases, no second test was performed even after the first one came back positive.

PCA owner Parnell had been subpoenaed to testify today before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.  Parnell appeared, but invoked his constitutional right not to incriminate himself.

But at the hearing , Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calf.) presented PCA emails he said were written by Parnell.  In the emails, Parnell pushes workers to ship peanuts that had tested positive for salmonella.  In one of them, Parnell insists that PCA needs to “turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money.”  In another, he tells his plant manager  to “turn them loose” after learning some peanuts were contaminated with salmonella.

In another missive sent on June 6, 2008, Parnell responds to news that peanuts that tested positive for salmonella had been shipped from the PCA factory.  “I go through this about once a week. I will hold my breath again.”

“What they (the emails) show is this company cared more about its financial bottom line than about the safety of its customers,” Waxman said during the hearing.

Last month, the Justice Department joined the FDA in a  criminal probe of PCA.  Earlier this week, the  FBI executed search warrants at the PCA Georgia plant in and at its headquarters in Virginia.  According to the Associated Press, an Atlanta TV station reported FBI agents entering the plant and leaving with boxes and other material.

The PCA Georgia plant has been closed since January, and yesterday the company closed a Texas plant run by its subsidiary, Plainview Peanut Co., after salmonella had been detected there.  As we reported last week, this facility was neither inspected nor licensed with health officials, despite having been in operation since 2005.

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