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Powell: Charges in peanut butter-salmonella outbreak shed light on dirty business

Returned jars of Peter Pan Peanut Butter are

Returned jars of Peter Pan Peanut Butter are shown at a super market in Atlanta. The peanut butter was recalled because of a possible link to a salmonella outbreak. Credit: AP, 2007

It’s a sticky situation at the grocery store these days.

The U.S. Justice Department filed a criminal complaint against four former officials of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation America (PCA) charging that its top officials knew it was responsible for a major salmonella outbreak.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2008-09 outbreak caused 714 known cases of food poisoning in 46 states, causing nine deaths.

The 76-count indictment against the former employees, which included charges of mail and wire fraud, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and introducing adulterated food in to the market, was unsealed last Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Georgia.

Also unsealed? Disturbing details about the business practices that led to the outbreak, like rodent and insect infestation tolerated in production plants. While that may not come as a surprise, emails sent by former PCA President Stewart Parnell the government says shows the company officials disregarded positive salmonella test results are shocking.

On October 5, 2006. Parnell lied in an email to a customer whose purchased products tested positive for salmonella.

"I am dumbfounded by what you have found. It is the first time in my over 26 years in the peanut business that I have ever seen any instance of this. We run Certificates of Analysis EVERY DAY with tests for Salmonella and have not found any instances of any, even traces, of a Salmonella problem."

In another illuminating email sent by Parnell on March 21, 2007, he reacted to the information that a salmonella test result wasn't ready yet and therefore a portion of a retail shipment would be delayed.

"s...,” just ship it. I cannot afford to loose (sic) another customer."

Parnell's law firm maintains that he did not knowingly order any tainted products to be shipped, but the exchanges laid out in the indictment indicate he at least ordered shipped product he knew had not been tested yet.

As a society, we are far removed from our food sources.

We already know that there are plenty of flaws in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Dept. of Agriculture’s food inspection processes. Many of these food borne illness are caused by unsanitary working conditions. So we largely rely on the producers themselves to protect us because they want to protect their profits.

The serious charges against the Peanut Corporation of America, if proven, show there’s nothing that will stop greedy company executives who want to intentionally sell contaminated products. It's disheartening, and it’s disgusting.

And in this case, deadly.