Felony Prosecution for Salmonella-Peanut Executives

UACESCOMM-peanutsBy Maryn McKenna

A pretty extraordinary thing happened Thursday, here in Georgia: A district court in the middle part of the state unsealed a 76-count, 52-page indictment of former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), charging them with fraud and conspiracy for knowingly distributing peanut products contaminated with Salmonella.

The 2009 outbreak caused by the contaminated peanuts reached, literally, nationwide. Hundreds of products were recalled; 714 people were known to have been made sick by it in 46 states, one-fourth of them were hospitalized, and nine died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (As with other foodborne outbreaks, in which only a fraction of cases are confirmed by lab analysis, the actual number of victims may be much larger.) While that is not the largest outbreak recorded in the United States — the Salmonella in eggs scandal of 2010 sickened almost 2,000 people — it is definitely large: Most of the multi-state foodborne outbreaks analyzed by the CDC involve fewer than 100 known victims.

The PCA outbreak’s size makes it unusual, but so does the decision to press for prosecution: That happens in very few foodborne-illness cases. But if you read the indictment (which I extracted from the federal PACER system and put up at my Scribd account), you’ll see why the Department of Justice decided to prosecute this time. It alleges a trail of not only negligence — unrepaired roof leaks, ignored rodent infestations — but also deliberate deception which ranged from faked origin labeling to falsified lab results.

 

Through their lawyers and the daily news coverage last week (NPR, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times), the company executives denied the charges, maintaining that inspectors for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration visited the plant regularly and signed off on its practices.

Here are some of those practices, according to the indictment:

(Count 1): 28. It was part of the conspiracy that the defendants and others shipped and caused to be shipped peanut products before receiving the results of microbiological testing performed on said products…

29. It was further part of the conspiracy that the defendants and others shipped and caused to be shipped peanut products after having received the results of microbiological testing performed on said products indicating that the products were confirmed positive for, and therefore contained and adulterated by, salmonella…

31. It was further part of the conspiracy that the defendants and others shipped and caused to be shipped peanut products without ever submitting a sample from said lot for microbiological testing by a laboratory, despite customers’ specifications requiring such testing…

33. It was further part of the conspiracy that the defendants and others made false statements to their customers about the presence of salmonella in the … plant environment and in the products manufactured at the … plant, claiming that there had never been even a trace of a salmonella problem, when, in truth and fact, salmonella had previously been detected in the plant, and salmonella had been detected in the products manufactured there on numerous occasions every year dating back to 2003.

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