Tainted peanut butter killed three Minnesotans six years ago. Now, the trial against food executives brings hope of justice.
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.