Five indicted for tainted peanuts

Published 11:17 pm Thursday, February 21, 2013

Five former officials of the Peanut Corporation of America and a related company have been charged in an indictment unsealed Wednesday on counts related to a 2008-2009 outbreak of salmonella.

The wave of disease killed nine and sickened hundreds across 46 states. The company owned Tidewater Blanching Corp., which was located on County Street in Suffolk. The facility was shut down suddenly in February 2009 in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings occasioned by the federal probe into the salmonella traced to the company’s peanut products.

Those indicted in a Georgia federal court were Stewart Parnell, 58, of Lynchburg, where the company was based; Michael Parnell, 54, of Midlothian; Samuel Lightsey, 48, of Blakely, Ga.; Mary Wilkerson, 39, of Edison, Ga.; and Daniel Kilgore, 44, of Blakely.

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Kilgore has already pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead.

The investigation into the activity at the company began in 2009 after the outbreak was traced to the company’s plant in Blakely, where it roasted raw peanuts and produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste.

The indictments allege that the Parnells, Lightsey and Kilgore shipped contaminated products even after receiving positive salmonella tests on samples of those lots. In addition, the defendants allegedly fabricated test results to conceal positive tests or indicate a negative test when no test at all had actually been performed.

The indictments further allege Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson gave false or misleading answers to questions asked by investigators in January 2009.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which conducted a two-week investigation at the Suffolk plant in the same month, did not announce discovering evidence of salmonella here. However, investigators did find dead mice, gaps in strip curtains that could have allowed pests into the facility and 43 totes full of shelled, blanched peanuts that had black, green and yellow mold on the outside of the bags and on the peanuts at the top of the containers.

About 13 Suffolk employees lost their jobs when the plant shut down.

“The charges announced today show that if an individual violates food safety rules or conceals relevant information, we will seek to hold them accountable,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. “The health of our families and the safety of our food system is too important to be thwarted by the criminal acts of any individual or company.”