As the first federal criminal trial related to food-borne illnesses enters its third week, witnesses reveal a lack of regulatory oversight and unpalatable details of production at the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), the company responsible for causing a 2008-2009 outbreak of Salmonella that killed nine and sickened over 700.
Samuel Lightsey, former plant manager at PCA, returned to the stand on Monday for his seventh day of testimony on the case, which alleges that the company knowingly shipped contaminated products to its customers and lied to federal authorities. According to Lightsey, the company prioritized sales over food safety concerns and had a system for deceiving its customers that included using fake lab results for untested or tainted products.
In his testimony on August 8, Lightsey explained that PCA regularly shipped its peanut butter to Kellogg’s, which had requested Salmonella testing, with false test results. Lightsey said that Mike Parnell, food broker and brother of CEO Stewart Parnell, had told him: “I can handle Kellogg’s. We’ve been shipping to them with false COA’s (certificates of analysis) since before you got here.”
Prosecutors showed company emails that documented Parnell filling out COAs — official lab results — himself. Other emails documented CEO Parnell’s insistence that products known to be contaminated with rat feces be shipped anyway.
While suits have been filed against companies involved in food-borne illness cases in the past, this is the first to come to trial in a criminal court. The heart of this case is focused on PCA’s fraudulent practices, rather than the human damage of the Salmonella outbreak. In fact, prosecutors agreed to not even mention the death toll in court. The Parnell brothers and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson are charged with 76 counts related to defrauding customers and lying to federal authorities. Shipley pled guilty to seven criminal counts for his role in the scandal and agreed to testify in exchange for lighter sentencing.
Lacking the resources for regular inspections, the FDA does not require food producers to test for Salmonella. Companies can request their ingredient suppliers to test for the bacteria — as Kellogg’s had done — but are not legally bound to test bacteria before releasing products to the public. When outbreaks do occur, the FDA has little leverage to make companies submit to an investigation.
“Records are voluntary,” FDA investigator Bob Neligan told the jury in the PCA trial. He visited the PCA plant in July of 2009 in the wake of the Salmonella outbreak, but it took five days of pressing employees and an FDA order to force PCA to supply testing and production records.
The Food Safety Modernization Act could help give the FDA more teeth. Passed in 2011, the FSMA is the biggest update to food safety law in the U.S. in 70 years and shifts the focus of FDA efforts to preventing contamination events, rather than just responding to them. However, three years after the law passed, the FDA still lacks a complete set of rules or an implementation plan. After a missed 2012 rule finalization deadline, the Center for Food Safety sued the FDA over missed statutory deadlines. In February, a federal court sided with the CFS and implemented a consent decree mandating FSMA regulations be finalized by 2016.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that every year 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die from a food-borne illness in the U.S. Salmonella is the leading cause of infection, with an incidence rate of 15.19 cases per 100,000 population in 2013, well above the government’s goal of 11.4.
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