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.