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Georgia trial shows food safety relies on honor system

Witnesses say salmonella issues known at plant

ALBANY, Ga. — Jurors at the nation’s first federal criminal trial stemming from a deadly outbreak of food-borne illness are learning a disconcerting fact: America’s food safety largely depends on the honor system.

Witnesses say that Stewart Parnell and others at Peanut Corp. of America knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted products and that they sent customers lab results from other clean batches rather than wait for tests to confirm their products were free of deadly bacteria.

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Defense lawyers correctly noted for the jurors that salmonella tests aren’t even required by federal law.

Parnell and his two codefendants face long prison sentences if convicted of knowingly shipping the contaminated peanut products linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened 714 across 43 states in 2008 and 2009.

Their plant in rural Blakely, Ga., was shut down and the company went bankrupt. Long after consumers ate contaminated peanut butter, ice cream, energy bars, and other products, the outbreak prompted one of the largest food recalls in US history.

But Stewart Parnell, his brother and food broker, Michael Parnell, and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson aren’t charged with killing anybody. In fact, prosecutors agreed not to mention the death toll to the jurors.

The 76-count indictment instead accuses the Parnell brothers of defrauding customers that used Peanut Corp.’s contaminated products as ingredients. Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson are charged with concealing information from federal investigators.

Only some customers — such as Kellogg’s — required the plant to ensure its shipments were salmonella-free.

‘‘If they didn’t require it, it did not get tested,’’ Samuel Lightsey, who managed the Georgia plant during the outbreak, told jurors Friday.

Lightsey pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in May and agreed to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Food and Drug Administration investigators ultimately discovered that lab tests had showed contamination in the plant’s chopped nuts, peanut butter, or peanut paste 12 times during the two years before the outbreak.

FDA inspector Janet Gray walked the jury through documents showing at least eight of those salmonella-tainted lots were shipped to customers anyway.

‘‘There is no legal requirement for testing at all for salmonella,’’ Tom Bondurant, Stewart Parnell’s defense lawyer, told jurors during opening statements Aug. 1. ‘‘There wasn’t then, and there’s not now.’’

That’s true and it could be a problem for prosecutors in the case, said Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety.

But defense lawyers have a problem of their own — and that goes back to the honor system. ‘‘The problem is that the company committed big-time fraud,’’ Hanson said.

Public outcry over the peanut case and several other outbreaks of food-borne illness led Congress to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, which was supposed to give the FDA more resources and enforcement power.

Three years later, most of its rules have not been published, and the FDA still doesn’t require that products be free of salmonella when shipped, said Hanson. His organization sued the FDA and won a federal consent decree ordering the agency to implement the law by next year.

Salmonella causes an estimated 1.2 million illnesses every year in the United States, with about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacteria can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, with infections that spread throughout the body, killing people who aren’t quickly treated with antibiotics. The elderly, infants, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable.

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