4 charges in sale of salmonella-tainted peanuts

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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 in food poisoning cases. Justice Department officials said yesterday that the charges stemming from the 2009 outbreak serve as a warning to food manufacturers who may compromise consumer safety in search of 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, unsealed late Wednesday in federal court in Albany, Ga., accuses Peanut Corp. 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 working with the company.

Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson were also charged with obstruction of justice. The conspiracy and obstruction charges each carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. A fifth employee pleaded guilty to similar charges in a separate case.

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Widespread outbreaks of this kind are becoming more common as food companies ship all over the country and the world.

Investigations are pending into two other large outbreaks in recent years, (1.) salmonella in eggs in 2010 and (2.) listeria in cantaloupe in 2011 that was linked to more than 30 deaths.

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