WASHINGTON - Facing anguished family members and angry legislators, the head of a peanut company refused to answer congressional questions Wednesday about allegations that his firm may be responsible for nine deaths and hundreds of food-borne illnesses.
Stewart Parnell, owner and president of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), whose Georgia plant is under federal investigation, appeared before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations amid revelations that he gave staff the go-ahead to ship peanut products that initially tested positive for salmonella but were clean in retests.
The salmonella outbreak has sickened at least 600 people since the fall, and three Minnesotans are among the nine who have died. The most recent death linked to the outbreak was reported Wednesday in Ohio. More than 1,900 products have been recalled, among the largest recalls in U.S. history.
The sons of two of the deceased Minnesotans were among those testifying on the outbreak on Capitol Hill, mixing anger with sorrow as they described the suffering and deaths of their parents. "Our family feels cheated; my mom should be here today," said Jeff Almer, whose mother died in December.
Parnell repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself as he declined to answer questions. The House panel released internal company e-mails showing him complaining about lost revenue while the outbreak was being investigated.
Turning peanuts into money
In an August e-mail, Parnell, advised that products initially identified with salmonella had come up clean in retests, said, "okay, let's turn them loose then." In another, from October, Parnell complained that delays related to positive tests were "costing us huge $$$$$$."
After the national outbreak was tied to his company in mid-January, Parnell wrote to Food and Drug Administration officials saying his workers "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."
Robert Lightsey, manager of PCA's Georgia plant, also invoked his right not to testify when he appeared alongside Parnell before the subcommittee.
One of the panel members, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said, "lives were lost and people were sickened because [this company] took a chance, I believe knowingly, with products that were contaminated."
Shortly afterward, Walden, holding up a plastic jar containing recalled products and wrapped in crime scene tape, asked Parnell whether he would like to sample them.
Parnell, sitting straight up, arms folded on his lap, repeated: "Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution."
After he had made the statement several times, legislators dismissed him from the hearing.
Minnesotans call for action
Almer of Savage and Lou Tousignant of Minneapolis, each of whom lost a parent who had eaten salmonella-tainted peanut butter, told the committee that Congress must approve mandatory product recalls and improve public notice about contaminated food.
Almer called the current food safety process a "broken and ineffective system with abysmal oversight" and said he'd like to see Peanut Corp. executives serve jail time.
As he testified, Almer displayed a photograph of his late mother, Shirley Mae Almer, in front of him.
"Her death and the deaths of seven others could have been so easily prevented if not for the greed and avarice of the Peanut Corp. of America," he said.
Tousignant, whose father, Clifford, died in January, implored legislators to act.
"Do not let us be back here next year or the year after experiencing the same thing," he said. "Do not let the death of my father and seven others like him be in vain."
Problems are not new
Testimony suggested that the problems at PCA are not new. A lab tester said the company discovered salmonella at its Blakely, Ga., plant as far back as 2006. FDA officials also told legislators that more federal inspections could have helped prevent the outbreak.
Darlene Cowart, of JLA USA testing service, said she made one visit to the plant at the company's request in 2006 and pointed out problems with its peanut-roasting process and storage of raw and finished peanuts together that could have led to the salmonella. She testified that Peanut Corp. officials said they believed the salmonella came from organic Chinese peanuts.
According to a previous FDA report, the company found salmonella contamination in its plant at least a dozen times dating to June 2007.
'Total systemic breakdown'
In a Jan. 12 message to his employees, Parnell insisted that the outbreak did not start at his plant, calling that a misunderstanding by the news media and public health officials. "No salmonella has been found anywhere else in our products, or in our plants, or in any unopened containers of our product," he said.
"We appear to have a total systemic breakdown," said Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations subcommittee.
Candy, cookies, granola bars and crackers containing the contaminated product have appeared everywhere from nursing homes to schools, even showing up in FEMA meal kits passed out in the wake of the Kentucky ice storms.
The government raided the company's Georgia plant on Monday, and Peanut Corp. closed its Plainview, Texas, facility Monday night. A federal criminal investigation is underway.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mitch Anderson • 202-408-2723