A Tale of Three Outbreaks: ConAgra plea deal reached

A couple of weeks ago I left my cozy bubble of Raleigh and travelled to Wayne County NC for an evening talk at the Farm-City Banquet. As I was driving I thought about Doug and Gord Surgeoner’s mentorship – both instilled the importance of engaging with real people around issues and chatting over dinners.

Research and extension activities need grounding in reality.caddyshack_be_the_ball_small

The morning of the event I wasn’t entirely sure what to talk about – so I asked Schaffner for input during a podcast recording. He suggested ‘A Tale of Two Outbreaks’ – comparing Jensen Farms to PCA. Both tragic outbreaks, both resulting in criminal charges. One was due to an egregious disregard for public health. The other seemed to be a couple of folks who meant well but didn’t quite get microbiology.

Be the bug.

For the next talk I’m gonna add in ConAgra’s Peter Pan/Salmonella outbreak as part of the story.

The Associated Press reports that ConAgra pled guilty and has agreed to pay $11.2 million in fines and other fees as a result of an outbreak a decade ago.

ConAgra admitted to a single misdemeanor count of shipping adulterated food. No individuals at the leading food conglomerate faced any charges in the 2006 outbreak, which sickened at least 625 people in 47 states.

Disease detectives traced the salmonella to a plant in rural Sylvester, Georgia, that produced peanut butter for ConAgra under the Peter Pan label and the Great Value brand sold at Wal-Mart. In 2007 the company recalled all the peanut butter it had sold since 2004.

Leo Knowles, president of ConAgra Grocery Products, offered no testimony as he entered the misdemeanor plea Tuesday on behalf of the Chicago-based corporation’s subsidiary.

“It made a lot of people sick,” federal prosecutor Graham Thorpe said Tuesday as he described ConAgra’s decision to continue shipments from the Georgia plant in late 2006, before corrective actions were completed, despite lab tests that had twice detected salmonella in samples.

“The industry has taken notice of this prosecution,” Thorpe added.

Though the Justice Department called $8 million the heftiest criminal fine ever imposed in a U.S. food safety case, it represents just one-tenth of one percent of ConAgra’s current $8 billion market capitalization. The company also will pay $3.2 million in cash forfeitures to the federal government.

ConAgra said it didn’t know peanut butter was contaminated with salmonella before it was shipped. However, the plea agreement documents noted that ConAgra knew peanut butter made in Georgia had twice tested positive for salmonella in 2004. Problems weren’t all fixed by the time of the outbreak.

The judge noted that others had already received cash from ConAgra in civil settlements, which he said totaled $36 million to 6,810 people.

About 2,000 of them were represented by Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in food-safety cases. He said the case shows corporations can be prosecuted even when there’s no evidence of intentional criminality. The misdemeanor charge, he said, required only that ConAgra shipped the contaminated food.

“Companies are very concerned, they’re very worried,” Marler said. “They’re very interested in knowing: How can they charge us with a crime even if we don’t mean to do it? People are paying attention to that and hopefully it’s going to drive positive food behavior.”

The folks in the food and agriculture world in Wayne County seemed to pay attention.

No testing, but an A+ on audits: Lenient sentences for ex-peanut officials in Salmonella outbreak

USA Today reports that two ex-officials of Peanut Corporation of America drew lenient sentences Thursday for their self-admitted roles in a Salmonella outbreak blamed for killing nine and sickening hundreds.

AIB.audit.eggsGeorgia U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands sentenced Samuel Lightsey, 50, a former operations manager at the peanut firm’s Blakely, Ga. plant, to serve three years in prison. Daniel Kilgore, 46, another ex-manager at the plant, drew a six-year sentence from the judge.

Sands allowed them to remain free, pending voluntary surrender after the U.S. Bureau of Prisons designates the correctional facilities where they will serve their sentences.

Both reached plea agreements with prosecutors that limited their punishment when they pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, along with sale of misbranded and adulterated food.

They later testified as government witnesses during the 2014 federal trial that ended with criminal convictions of ex-Peanut corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell and two other former top executives.

The case stemmed from findings by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that traced a national salmonella outbreak to the Parnell firm’s peanut roasting plant in Blakely. The incident sickened 714 people in 46 states and may have contributed to nine deaths, the CDC reported.

The illnesses erupted in January 2009 and prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

Parnell, 61, was sentenced to a virtual life term — 28 years behind bars — on Sept. 21. His brother, Michael Parnell, received a 20-year term, and former quality control manager Mary Wilkerson, drew a five-year sentence.

Sands ordered the Parnell brothers to surrender immediately, denying defense arguments that they should be permitted to remain free on bond pending appeals of their convictions.

Government evidence presented at the trial established that Lightsey and Kilgore knowingly helped the top executives fabricate certificates of analysis in a scheme that falsely showed peanut butter from the Blakely plant was free of Salmonella and other pathogens. In fact, there had been no testing of the product, or tests had confirmed contamination, prosecutors showed.

28 years in jail for peanut exec who knowingly sold Salmonella killing 9

There once was a guy who bought peanuts in Georgia and made them into butter.

stewart.parnellPeanut butter.

And peanut spread thingies.

His peanuts had Salmonella, and his products killed 9 people and sickened at least 714.

Stewart Parnell knew his products had Salmonella, but he lied, he lied.

He will no longer play tennis.

He will spend the next 28 years in jail.

vonnegut-asshole-210x30030-second food safety stories.

Life sentence recommended for former PCA president

It’s trite and cliched, but a food safety culture begins at the top of a company. CEOs, COOs, presidents and other business-y people have to value not making customers ill to really establish a working food safety program.

And provide resources to operational staff – the folks who put process and training systems in place to make food safer.8387b40a8cc5f54c53dc3a171e921aaa25744918

Most companies have internal conflicts on food safety priorities – but the good ones don’t let profits and market trump public health – like Stewart Parnell, former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) president did.

The shockingly poor food safety culture established by Parnell’s Salmonella-positive-just-ship-it mentality spread throughout the company, resulting in over 700 illnesses and 9 deaths linked to PCA’s products.

According to Korin Miller at Yahoo News, Parnell’s actions have led prosecutors to recommend a life sentence in prison.

The recommendation for his sentencing, which a lawyer for one of the victims called “unprecedented,” was revealed on Wednesday, the Associated Press reports.

After a seven-week trial, Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, were both charged with 76 federal counts linked to intentionally shipping peanut products that tested positive for salmonella, CNN reports.

This case is disturbing because salmonella is so potentially dangerous, says food safety specialist Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor at North Carolina State University. “Not everybody who eats salmonella is going to get sick, but the issue is that you don’t know if you’re going to get sick,” he tells Yahoo Health. “That’s why we really don’t want to have salmonella in our food.”

So, while Parnell’s case is unprecedented, the proposed punishment does seem to fit the crime. “We saw through the trial that some really egregious things happened,” says Chapman. “It’s important that people who have knowingly done things to negatively effect other people’s health are held responsible and accountable — it sounds like that’s being done here.”

3 found guilty in Georgia Salmonella trial

In a decision that may finally hold U.S. food producers accountable, a federal jury convicted three people Friday in connection with an outbreak of Salmonella poisoning five years ago that sickened hundreds of people and was linked to a number of deaths.

2009_0115_ss_peanut_crackerFormer Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was found guilty of conspiracy and other charges after a seven-week trial in Albany, Georgia.

Parnell, his brother, Michael Parnell, and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson have been on trial since Aug. 1 on charges stemming from the 2008-2009 outbreak that sickened 714 people and was linked to nine deaths. Michael Parnell was found guilty of conspiracy. Wilkerson was found guilty of obstruction.

Conspiracy charges and the obstruction charges each carry up to 20 years in prison. Sentencing will take place at a later date.

Experts say it’s the first time corporate executives and plant workers have gone to trial in a food poisoning case.

Jury won’t consider deaths in Georgia Salmonella trial

A jury weighing criminal charges Thursday against the owner of a Georgia peanut plant blamed for a nationwide salmonella outbreak five years ago will decide the case without hearing one fact — that nine people died after eating the company’s tainted peanut butter.

peanutFormer Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell and two co-defendants have been on trial since Aug. 1 and the jury started deliberations last Friday. Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, are charged with knowingly shipping contaminated peanut butter to customers and faking lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.

Prosecutor Patrick Hearn, in his closing argument Friday, said Parnell and his co-defendants were greedy enough “to toss food safety to the wind.” But he stopped short of describing the outbreak’s full consequences.

“They served up salmonella to people and they ate it,” Hearn said. “This needs to never happen again.”

Why not tell the jury of the deaths? The Parnell brothers aren’t charged with killing or sickening anybody.

Instead, prosecutors decided they could build a stronger case charging them with defrauding their customers — food producers including Kellogg’s — and selling them tainted goods, said U.S. Attorney Michael Moore of Georgia’s Middle District, whose office tried the case.

“We wanted to make sure we kept the jury focused on the conduct that led to these people’s sickness, but not let the case get into the medical history of every victim out there” with testimony on individual deaths, Moore said.

Prosecutor says Georgia peanut plant owner OK’d sales of salmonella-tainted food ‘whatever the risk’

Prosecutors are wrapping up their case against the owner of a Georgia peanut plant linked to a deadly salmonella outbreak, saying he knowingly approved shipments of tainted food “whatever the risk.”

peanutJurors began hearing closing arguments Thursday in the five-week federal trial of former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell and two others charged with covering up lab tests that found salmonella in peanuts and peanut butter. The company’s products are blamed for killing nine Americans and making 714 others sick in 2008 and 2009.

Defense attorneys took barely an hour Wednesday to rest their cases after more than a month of prosecution testimony.

Defense attorney grills former peanut plant manager in trial linked to Salmonella outbreak

Defense attorneys for three people charged in a deadly salmonella outbreak sought to deflect blame and poke holes in the government’s case Tuesday as they questioned a co-defendant, who is a key prosecution witness.

PCA.AIB.certificateThe co-defendant, Samuel Lightsey, was a former manager of a Georgia peanut processing plant blamed in the 2008-09 outbreak. He was indicted along with his former boss, Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, and two others. Lightsey pleaded guilty in May after reaching a deal with prosecutors.

The 76-count indictment accuses Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, of shipping tainted products to customers and covering up lab tests showing they contained salmonella. It also charges Stewart Parnell and the plant’s quality assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, with obstructing justice.

Tom Bondurant, an attorney for Stewart Parnell, asked Lightsey about his plea agreement, which recommends that he not serve more than six years in prison. He had been facing decades behind bars.

Bondurant then pointed out that the government’s lawyers could ask the judge for further leniency, including no prison time, if Lightsey’s able to “substantially assist” their efforts.

“So the truth alone is not enough. You need a scalp to make this deal work, don’t you?” Bondurant said.

Bondurant asked Lightsey a series of questions to demonstrate that Stewart Parnell had given him considerable authority over the Georgia plant and relied on him.

“You made decisions every day about how to run the plant, didn’t you?” Bondurant said.

“That’s the job,” Lightsey responded.

Bondurant also had Lightsey review audits predating the salmonella outbreak that showed the plant receiving high marks from inspectors and a box of what he said was nearly 4,000 lab reports, of which about a dozen tested positive for salmonella.

Ex-peanut plant head testifies on Salmonella

Wednesday marked Samuel Lightsey’s fourth day of testimony in the trial of his former boss at Peanut Corporation of America, Stewart Parnell, and two others. Peanut Corporation is blamed for a deadly 2008-09 salmonella outbreak that caused one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.

mr_peanut_warningLightsey testified about documents that showed positive tests for Salmonella; emails sent by company employees to customers telling them to hold the product because of “inconclusive” tests, which Lightsey said were actually positive; and documents that showed water sometimes got into the company’s product, which he said can lead to contamination.

Defense attorneys have not yet started questioning Lightsey, who managed the plant from July 2008 until the company went bankrupt in 2009 following the outbreak. He pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in May after reaching a deal with prosecutors.

Faith-based food safety: Georgia peanut plant chief says we faked Salmonella tests

A Georgia peanut plant manager testified Friday that his company had been shipping contaminated nuts with fake documents showing them to be salmonella-free before the plant was identified as the source of a nationwide outbreak that killed nine Americans and sickened more than 700.

peanut“In my mind, I wasn’t intentionally hurting anyone,” Sammy Lightsey told jurors at the trial of his former boss, Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, and two others.

Lightsey, who managed the plant from July 2008 until the company went bankrupt following the outbreak in 2009, pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in May after agreeing to testify for prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. He was the top manager at the peanut plant, reporting directly to Stewart Parnell.

Soon after taking the job, Lightsey said, he discovered that peanut paste was being shipped to Kellogg’s for use in peanut butter crackers the same day they were produced, without waiting the 48 hours it takes to receive results of lab tests for salmonella and other contaminants.

Rather than wait, Lightsey said, the plant would ship paste with lab results that actually came from different batches tested a week earlier, certifying they were negative for salmonella.

Lightsey said he confronted Michael Parnell, who handled the contract for Kellogg, one of the company’s biggest customers.

“I went to the office and called Mike Parnell and I told him we can’t do this; it was illegal and it was wrong,” Lightsey said. “He informed me it was set up before I got there and don’t worry about Kellogg’s, he can handle Kellogg’s.”

Lightsey said he didn’t push the issue further. He didn’t say if he ever discussed the fake lab results with Stewart Parnell.

In a related story, Russ Bynum of TribTown writes that jurors are learning a disconcerting fact: America’s food safety largely depends on the honor system.

“Could all these people have been charged criminally with something? The answer is, hell yes,” said Bill Marler, an attorney who claims to have won $500 million for victims of foodborne illnesses over the past two decades.

“I’m a firm believer in using the civil justice system to hold people accountable. But these criminal prosecutions have really got people’s attention,” said Marler. “It’s a completely different viewpoint that these CEOs and managers have when they’re facing jail time and fines that aren’t insured.”

Meanwhile, the FDA lacks the resources to regularly inspect food producers, and when outbreaks happen, they largely depend on their goodwill to find the source.