Owner of peanut company in U.S. salmonella outbreak refuses to testify

The owner of a U.S. peanut company refused to testify to Congress on Wednesday amid reports that he urged his workers to ship bacteria-tainted products and pleaded with health officials to be allowed to "turn the raw peanuts on the floor into money."

The owner of a U.S. peanut company refused to testify to Congress on Wednesday amid reports that he urged his workers to ship bacteria-tainted products and pleaded with health officials to be allowed to "turn the raw peanuts on the floor into money."

Stewart Parnell, owner of Peanut Corp. of America, repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself before the House of Representatives subcommittee holding a hearing on a salmonella outbreak blamed on his company.

The outbreak has sickened some 600 people in the U.S. and may be linked to nine deaths — the latest reported in Ohio on Wednesday — and has resulted in one of the largest product recalls ever, involving more than 1,800 items. A Canadian who purchased a product in the U.S. was among those who fell ill.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I … decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution," Parnell said.

After repeating the statement several times, he was dismissed from the hearing.

'Huge $$$$$$'

During the hearing, a lab tester testified the company discovered salmonella at its Georgia plant as far back as 2006.

The panel released emails obtained by its investigators showing Parnell ordered products identified as tainted with salmonella be shipped, and quoting his complaints that tests discovering the contaminated food were "costing us huge $$$$$$."

In mid-January, after the national outbreak was tied to his company, Parnell told U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials that his workers "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."

In another exchange, he told his plant manager to "turn them loose" after products once deemed contaminated were cleared in a second test.

Parnell's response to a final lab test last year showing salmonella was about how much the results would cost the company, and the impact lab testing was having on moving his products.

"We need to discuss this," he wrote in an Oct. 6 email to Sammy Lightsey, his plant manager. "The time lapse, beside the cost is costing us huge $$$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice."

Lightsey also invoked his right not to testify when he appeared alongside Parnell before the subcommittee.

The disclosures came in correspondence released by a House energy and commerce subcommittee Wednesday during a hearing on the salmonella outbreak.

Relatives of victims urged legislators to approve mandatory product recalls and improve public notice about contaminated food.

A federal criminal investigation is under way.

'Total systemic breakdown'

Darlene Cowart of JLA USA testing service said the company contacted her in November 2006 to help control salmonella discovered in the plant.

Cowart said she made one visit to the plant and pointed out problems with its peanut roasting process and with storing raw and finished peanuts together, which could have led to the salmonella. She testified that Peanut Corp. officials said they believed the salmonella came from organic Chinese peanuts.

An earlier FDA inspection report said the company found salmonella in some of its products.

"We appear to have a total systemic breakdown," said Democratic Representative Bart Stupak, chairman of the committee's investigations subcommittee.

Other emails released by the committee show that after salmonella was discovered in the Georgia plant's products, Parnell tried to salvage whatever he could from the plant, looking for loopholes in what the government said the company could use.

In a Jan. 19 email about a truck with some 15,000 kilograms of raw peanuts, Parnell noted that Georgia agriculture officials were "putting a hold on everything else in the plant" besides what was on the truck.

In another exchange, Parnell complained to a worker after he was notified that salmonella was discovered in more products.

"I go thru this about once a week," he wrote in a June 2008 email. "I will hold my breath … again."

A laboratory owner told the House panel that the peanut company's disregard for tests identifying salmonella in its product is "virtually unheard of" in the U.S. food industry and should prompt efforts to increase federal oversight of product safety.