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BRAINERD, Minn. – They began clearing out their mother’s room only this spring.
But no one could bear to rummage through the attic where Shirley Mae Almer kept the Christmas decorations once strung so brightly outside that ice fishermen on the lake looked to their house as a landmark.
Now, nearly six years after she died from eating a slice of toast topped with tainted peanut butter, the Almer family is at last sensing justice could finally be at hand.
They are making plans to fly to Albany, Ga., to attend an extraordinary trial of three executives of a now-bankrupt peanut butter company that was the source of a salmonella outbreak that became one of the deadliest of its kind in the country in recent years. More than 700 people were sickened and nine were killed, including three in Minnesota.
“It was a long wait,” Ginger Lorentz said from her house in Brainerd, where what she described as her Finnish mother’s sisu — spiritedness — still lingers at the dining room table where she hosted lively meals with friends and in the goofy photo of her dressed up with her dog for July 4th.
The trial is opening amid growing concern nationally about food safety. Federal officials are stepping up ways to detect and investigate outbreaks more quickly as Congress is facing mounting public pressure to toughen food safety enforcement.
On Friday, as the trial began, prosecutors framed the case as one of a company so driven by profit that its leaders were willing to ship peanuts they knew were tainted to customers around the country. Prosecutors presented an e-mail from the former president, saying, “ … just ship it. I cannot afford to lose another customer.” The defense said that the owner struggled to keep up with day-to-day operations but that his inability to do so “is not a crime.”
Stewart Parnell, former chief executive of the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America, and two other executives face a 76-count indictment in connection with the salmonella outbreak.
The case against Parnell, his brother and food broker Michael Parnell and Mary Wilkerson, quality control manager of the plant in Blakely, Ga., is one of the toughest prosecutors have pursued over unsafe food. The trio face up to 20 years in prison.
The deadly outbreak helped spur passage of a tougher food safety law in 2011, which relatives of Almer and other victims lobbied for. The changes give government regulators more power to prevent food contamination, although federal officials are still debating how much money is needed to implement the law over the next few years.
Far from the courthouse in southern Georgia, where jurors were selected last week, families of the Minnesota victims say the case will serve as a strong warning to food manufacturers.
The trial “sends a message to the people that produce food that, ‘Break the rules and there are consequences,’ ” Lorentz said.
Almer, of Perham, was a mother of five who ran the family’s bowling alley in Wadena and helped open another one in Brainerd named after her late husband, Jack.
She survived lung cancer, then a brain tumor. But a urinary tract infection landed her at Good Samaritan nursing home in Brainerd in late 2008.
Lorentz gave her mother toast with peanut butter from a kitchenette there. Over the next few days, she watched her mother’s bright brown eyes fade to gray. She slept much of the time and complained of stomach aches. As the family prepared the home for Christmas, Almer’s favorite holiday, her health worsened. Doctors first thought she was ill because of medication, then thought she had pneumonia.
Her death came swiftly.
Her family opened her Christmas presents — glass vases, GPS devices — overwhelmed with sadness. The family had lost its center.
It was not until a state health official called and inquired about what Almer had eaten before the family could piece together what had happened.
Peanut butter claimed two more Minnesotans in the weeks that followed: Clifford Tousignant, 78, and Doris Flatgard, 87.
After health officials linked the deaths to salmonella, Almer’s son Jeff, of Savage, became a public face in the movement to strengthen food safety regulations. He testified in Congress, flew around the country, gave interviews and, most recently, appeared in a campaign commercial for Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., to talk about his mother and food safety.
Almer’s sons Mike and Pat quietly continued staying in the house they had shared with her in Perham. For years, she had enjoyed sitting on Big Pine Lake, tending to her azaleas and looking for butterflies. She put out food for the hummingbirds in the yard and fed the squirrels.
“It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure,” Mike Almer said of enduring her loss.
Lorentz used to make her children peanut butter sandwiches, but they switched to grilled cheese. She wouldn’t keep peanut butter in the house for a long time.
They changed the name of the dining room at the family’s 24-lane bowling alley in Brainerd to Shirley’s Classic Grille, and kept her pictures up in the office. The wall features a flier with pictures of Almer and five other victims, urging President Obama to implement a new food safety act.
Loved ones of the other victims are torn about the possible outcome of a lengthy and complex trial.
Barbara Flatgard, who lost her mother in 2009, said she doubts the defendants will see any prison time, “but just what an accomplishment [it is] that we at least got them charged.”
She fell into tears as she recalled how her mother died even though she had no physical ailments, only Alzheimer’s disease. She ate peanut butter every morning for years.
“Some people say, ‘When you’re older, does it really matter?’ ” Flatgard said. “It just shouldn’t happen to anyone.”
She is too busy caring for family members to attend the trial — and she doesn’t know what she would say to Stuart Parnell if she did see him. “Just shake my head and walk away.”
Another victim’s son, Lou Tousignant, speaks regularly to Jeff Almer about the case and intends to go to the trial’s last week. He regrets that his 10-year-old son will never know his grandfather, who survived the Korean War but died after eating one of his daily peanut butter sandwiches in the nursing home.
Tousignant said that while the safety reforms he and Almer fought for are important, “someone being convicted of something like this will have more teeth.”
Minneapolis food safety attorney Fred Pritzker said that one criminal prosecution is not enough to discourage similar behavior from other food manufacturers.
“It’s only going to serve as a deterrent if there’s enough of it for people to think that it could happen to them,” said Pritzker, who helped the Minnesota families win a $12 million settlement in 2010.
Prosecutors said this week they could take as long as two months to present evidence on the charges of fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and the introduction of adulterated, misbranded food into interstate commerce.
Internal company e-mails released by an investigative committee of the U.S. House in 2009 suggested that Stuart Parnell knew the peanuts had salmonella but shipped them anyway to avoid financial losses. After several positive tests for salmonella, he wrote, “We need to discuss this, this is costing us huge $$$$.” In another e-mail, he said, “Turn them loose, then,” when a batch of peanuts tested negative after initially indicating salmonella.
Lorentz saw Parnell years ago, at a Congressional hearing in which he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. She is determined to see him again at the trial this summer — to catch any sign of remorse, to hear some word of apology.
“I would like to see him in jail for the rest of his life,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.