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.
The executives’ apparent attitude toward their customers is pretty much summed up by e-mails quoted in the indictment, sent by former PCA president Stewart Parnell, the first person named on the indictment:
(Count 2) 16. On or about March 21, 2007, upon being told that salmonella testing results were not yet available and that shipment of a portion of a customer’s product would therefore be delayed, Stewart Parnell stated, via email: “Shit, just ship it. I cannot afford to loose (sic) another customer.”
28. On or about August 16, 2007, in discussing the possibility of PCA obtaining its own laboratory testing equipment, Stewart Parnell, via email, stated…: “These lab tests and (certificates of analysis) are fucking breaking me/us.”
35. On or about February 4, 2008, after referring to 1,374 pounds of peanut products left over from production as “waste,” Stewart Parnell did state, via email to PCA employees…: “IT IS MONEY… IT IS MONEY… IT IS MONEY… IT IS GODDAMN MONEY THAT WE DO NOT HAVE BECAUSE OF HOW LONG I HAVE ALLOWED you, your crew and everyone down there to let THIS GO ON… STOP THE MONEY FROM EVER GETTING OUT OF THE PRODUCTION FLOW!!!!!!!!!!”
If you want to read more about this, the most detailed coverage is in the publication Food Safety News, which has been covering the PCA situation since the beginning. (NB: FSN’s operations are backed by the food-safety attorney Bill Marler, but its reporters are independent.) This weekend, they have put together a long analysis of the charges in the indictment, a comprehensive timeline, and an essay by editor Dan Flynn, recalling how he crept up a disused rail line to report on the plant in 2009 because local sheriffs were protecting the company’s front door.
If you care about food safety, this is an important case to watch. First, because the existence of the case is so unusual; second, because (according to the indictment), the behavior that prompted it was so egregious. As presented by the feds, this was not accidental contamination, or sales of a product in which contamination could not have been controlled. It was, in their 52-page telling, deliberate and repeated, and apparently indifferent to the harm it might cause. If behavior such as they describe can’t be called to account, it would be worth asking why we have food-safety laws at all.