Processing Magazine

Peanut Company owner refuses to testify to Congress

February 11, 2009
The Associated Press reports that the owner of a peanut company refused to testify to Congress amid the disclosure that he urged his workers to ship bacteria-tainted products, pleading with federal health officials that he should be able "turn the raw peanuts on the floor into money." Stewart Parnell, owner of Peanut Corp. of America, repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself before the House subcommittee holding a hearing on a national salmonella outbreak blamed on his company. The outbreak has sickened some 600 people, and according to the latest results it may be linked to nine deaths. The salmonella outbreak has resulted in one of the largest product recalls of more than 1,800 items. Parnell sat stiffly, his hands folded in his lap at the witness table, as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held up a clear jar of his company''s products wrapped in crime scene tape and asked him if he would be willing to eat the food. Parnell refused to answer and after repeating that statement several times, he was dismissed from the hearing. The House panel released e-mails obtained by its investigators showing Parnell ordered products identified with salmonella to be shipped and quoting his complaints that tests discovering the contaminated food were costing the company money. In mid-January after the national outbreak was tied to his company, Parnell told Food and Drug Administration officials that his workers "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money." In another exchange, he told his plant manager to "turn them loose" after products once deemed contaminated were cleared in a second test. Parnell''s response in an email to his plant manager regarding a final lab test last year showing about how much salmonella results were costing them, and the impact lab testing was having on moving his products. In another exchange, Parnell complained to a worker after they notified him salmonella was discovered in more products. The plant manager, Sammy Lightsey, also invoked his right not to testify when he appeared alongside Parnell before the subcommittee. A laboratory owner told the House panel that the peanut company''s disregard for tests identifying salmonella in its product is "virtually unheard of" in the nation''s food industry and should prompt efforts to increase federal oversight of product safety. Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories Inc., said his company was among those that tested Peanut Corp. products and notified the Georgia plant that salmonella was found. Peanut Corp. sold the products anyway, according to an FDA inspection report. Deibel said he hopes the crisis leads to a greater role for FDA in overseeing food safety and providing more guidance to food makers. Relatives of victims urged lawmakers to approve mandatory product recalls and improve public notice about contaminated food. A federal criminal investigation is underway. The company makes only about 1 percent of U.S. peanut products. But its ingredients are used by dozens of other food companies.