A 76-count indictment was unsealed Wednesday evening, charging four former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America and a related company with numerous charges relating to salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
Stewart Parnell, 58, of Lynchburg, Va.; Michael Parnell, 54, of Midlothian, Va.; and Samuel Lightsey, 48, of Blakely, Ga., have been charged with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.
Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Mary Wilkerson, 39, of Edison, Ga., were charged also with obstruction of justice.
Also Wednesday, an information filed against Daniel Kilgore, 44, of Blakely was unsealed. On the same day that charges against Kilgore were filed, he pleaded guilty to that information, which charged him with mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead, and conspiracy.
Michael J. Moore, the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said Thursday in a press call that mail and wire fraud and conspiracy each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison; the interstate shipment charge carries a maximum of three years. Moore noted that no charges carry a mandatory minimum sentence.
The Justice Department clarifies that an indictment is only an allegation, and every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Indictments stem from 2009 salmonella outbreak
The investigation into the activity at PCA began in 2009, after the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a national outbreak of salmonella to a PCA plant in Blakely as the likely source. As alleged in the indictment, the Blakely plant was a peanut roasting facility where PCA roasted raw peanuts and produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter, and peanut paste; PCA sold these peanut products to its customers around the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 700 people reported being ill from salmonella poisoning during the outbreak, and many illnesses were traced back to peanut products produced by PCA.
The charging documents charge that Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in a scheme to manufacture and ship salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products, and in so doing misled PCA customers. As alleged in the indictment, those customers ranged in size from small, family-owned businesses to global, multibillion-dollar food companies.
"When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk," said Stuart F. Delery, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Division. "The Department of Justice will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
Indictment alleges falsified lab results, documents
The charging documents allege that Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in several schemes by which they defrauded PCA customers about the quality and purity of their peanut products and specifically misled PCA customers about the existence of foodborne pathogens, most notably salmonella, in the peanut products PCA sold to them. As the charging documents allege, the members of the conspiracy did so in several ways – for example, even when laboratory testing revealed the presence of salmonella in peanut products from the Blakely plant, Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore failed to notify customers of the presence of salmonella in the products shipped to them.
In addition, the charging documents allege that Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in a scheme to fabricate certificates of analysis accompanying various shipments of peanut products. COAs are documents that summarize laboratory results, including results concerning the presence or absence of pathogens.
As alleged in the charging documents, on several occasions these four defendants participated in a scheme to fabricate COAs stating that shipments of peanut products were free of pathogens when, in fact, there had been no tests on the products at all or when the laboratory results showed that a sample tested positive for salmonella.
Officials allegedly lied to FDA investigators
After the salmonella outbreak that gave rise to this investigation, FDA inspectors visited the plant several times in January 2009. According to the indictment, the inspectors asked specific questions about the plant, its operations, and its history, and, in several instances, Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson gave untrue or misleading answers to these questions.
"The charges announced today show that if an individual violates food safety rules or conceals relevant information, we will seek to hold them accountable," said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. "The health of our families and the safety of our food system is too important to be thwarted by the criminal acts of any individual or company."
Individuals who feel that they may have been affected by or have become ill from tainted PCA products, and businesses that purchased products that were recalled as a result of the outbreak, should visit the FBI website for further details.
Click here to view the PCA indictment.
Click here to view Kilgore's filed information.