WASHINGTON — A congressional subcommittee investigating a recent salmonella outbreak released e-mails Wednesday revealing that the owner of a peanut company discounted warnings that nuts were infected with the deadly bacteria.
"This lot is presumptive SALMONELLA!!!!" wrote plant worker Mary Wilkerson last June 6 to company officials. That same day, Stewart Parnell, owner and president of Peanut Corp. of America, replied, "thanks Mary, I go thru this about once a week...I will hold my breath.........again..." The e-mails were released on the same day that the House energy and commerce subcommittee announced that a ninth death, that of an elderly Ohio woman, had been tied to the salmonella outbreak. The panel also heard testimony from family members of people killed or sickened in the outbreak.
"Cancer couldn't kill her, but peanut butter did," Jeffrey Almer said of his 72-year-old mother, who died in December.
Almer told the subcommittee that his mother, Shirley, ate tainted peanut butter in a Minnesota rehabilitation center where she was being treated for a urinary tract infection. The day before she was to return home, he said, doctors unexpectedly said his mother had only hours to live.
The Food and Drug Administration last month traced the source of the outbreak, which has sickened 600 people nationwide, to the company's Blakely, Ga., plant. The agency found that Peanut Corp. knowingly shipped peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste products to dozens of food makers even after lab tests detected salmonella at the now-closed plant.
Parnell, the Peanut Corp. owner, refused to answer the subcommittee's questions Wednesday, repeatedly invoking his 5th Amendment rights.
Internal company e-mails obtained by the subcommittee show the company's president was alerted on numerous occasions to the fact that batches of the company's products were infected with salmonella. Yet according to Parnell's e-mail responses, he instructed staff to "turn the product loose."
At the hearing, Parnell said: "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."
Peanut Corp. plant manager Sammy Lightsey also invoked his right not to testify.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) held up a gallon bucket wrapped in yellow crime scene tape and presumably containing a recalled peanut butter product, and asked Parnell if he would be willing to "take the lid off" and eat any of it.
Parnell again invoked the 5th Amendment and was ushered out of the hearing room along with Lightsey and their counsel. Before his dismissal, subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) asked Parnell, "The food poisoning of people, is that just a cost of doing business for you?"
Lou Tousignant, whose father, Clifford, a highly decorated Korean War veteran with three Purple Hearts, died in a Minnesota nursing home in January after eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter, played a moving video tribute to him that left many in the audience wiping away tears. Afterward, Tousignant asked how an outbreak of such magnitude could occur, then told the panel, "Please do your job."
Peter Hurley testified that when his 3-year-old son, Jacob, started experiencing symptoms of salmonella poisoning in early January, the boy turned to the very comfort food that was making him ill: Keebler's Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.
Oregon state epidemiologist Dr. William Keene collected samples of Jacob's stool and of the crackers, and tests found a DNA match with the salmonella strain linked to the outbreak. The family was immediately notified of the danger, and Jacob is recovering.
Also testifying was Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories, which tested Peanut Corp. products. Deibel said his company notified Peanut Corp. that salmonella was found in products from its Georgia plant.
"What is virtually unheard of is for an entity to disregard those results and place potentially contaminated products into the stream of commerce," Deibel said.
Calling product testing the "last chance to catch a problem," Deibel said FDA quality control processes need to be updated and food safety guidelines enhanced to eliminate problems.
Lightsey referred to Deibel in a Sept. 29, 2008, e-mail released by the subcommittee: "We received Final Lab results from Deibel this morning and we have a Positive for Salmonella." He went on to say, in part, that two of Peanut Corp.'s clients "need to be called and the product placed on HOLD until this can be cleared."
On Oct. 6, 2008, Parnell replied: "We need to discuss this....the time lapses, besides the cost is costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in the time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice..."
On Jan. 28, Peanut Corp. issued a voluntary recall of all peanut and peanut butter products processed in the Georgia plant since Jan. 1, 2007.
The company is under FBI investigation, and its Lynchburg, Va., headquarters was raided this week. Peanut Corp. on Monday closed a second facility after tests indicated the presence of salmonella in samples from its Texas plant.