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They allegedly shipped peanut products before safety test results were received, and when those results came back positive for salmonella, customers weren’t told. Batches that tested positive for salmonella or other problems were knowingly shipped to customers, the charges say. Products that tested positive for salmonella were retested, and when the result was negative, they too were shipped, according to the indictment.
Although Peanut Corp. of America boasted to customers about its “remarkable food safety record,” roof leaks weren’t adequately repaired and proper sanitation procedures weren’t followed, nor were processes in place to prevent rodent and insect infestation, the indictment said.
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food-safety cases, called the indictment “unprecedented,” one that should send a message to every food executive. “This is the first time I have ever seen such a sweeping felony criminal indictment.”
Marler represented Minnesota victims of the Peanut Corp. outbreak and their families, as did Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis-based food-safety attorney. Pritzker called the case against Parnell “a sea change, frankly. Hopefully, this represents a change in attitude in terms of enforcement.”
Dr. Kirk Smith, who played a key role in exposing the outbreak as head of the state Health Department’s foodborne disease investigation unit, said: “If this sort of thing prevents other businesses from getting around the food-safety regulations, great.” He said no other outbreak he has investigated in 17 years has led to federal criminal charges.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who authored food-safety legislation in the wake of the deaths, said, “The ... decision to indict will never bring back their loved ones but will give them some sense that there is justice ahead for these criminal acts. People like Shirley Almer ... did not deserve to die for eating a piece of peanut butter toast.”
Traced to Georgia plant
The Peanut Corp. investigation began in 2009, after investigators traced a national outbreak of salmonella to the company’s plant in Blakely, Ga., where it roasted peanuts and produced other products, including peanut butter.
Minnesota health and agriculture officials played a key role by checking menus and interviewing people associated with Brainerd nursing homes and testing tubs of peanut butter from the homes.
Over the next few months, 4,000 products were recalled because they contained Peanut Corp. ingredients. Brands and food companies ranged from Cliff bars to Kellogg to Trader Joe’s to Kroger. In 2009, Peanut Corp. filed for bankruptcy and shut down.
By late March 2009, 714 confirmed illnesses had been linked to the outbreak in 46 states, with 45 cases in Minnesota, which involved 17 hospitalizations and three deaths.
“This was one of the biggest foodborne outbreaks we have ever worked on,” Smith said.
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