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Praise, and past problems, emerge for peanut executive

Stewart Parnell is known as a respected businessman in his hometown. But the deadly Georgia salmonella outbreak has not been his first bout of trouble.

February 14, 2009|Associated Press

A little over a month ago, Stewart Parnell was telling friends and clients just how good things were in his peanut business. He was spending time with his grandchild, looking forward to some more hunting and getting his boat out on the water.

Today, the man associated with the deadly salmonella outbreak in peanuts is more the recluse.

Parnell isn't talking now, not to reporters or congressmen who pelted him with questions about whether his Georgia plant was responsible for 600 illnesses and nine deaths across the country. Nearly 200 food makers who used or sold Parnell's products are listed on a recall of more than 1,900 items, making this one of the nation's largest recalls.

In his hometown in central Virginia, Parnell, 54, is known as a respected businessman. But the image of a benevolent peanut tycoon contrasts markedly with what investigators said occurred inside the processing plants of Peanut Corp. of America. Worried about profits, they said, Parnell fired off jaw-dropping e-mails to employees amid reports that salmonella had been detected in his products: "Turn them loose."

Those close to Parnell said he's not a monster, just a person who has made mistakes.

"I haven't condemned him yet," said Eddie Marks, who runs a Virginia storage company and has known Parnell for 15 years.

Health officials this week told him to shut his Texas plant and ordered a recall Thursday of all its products after salmonella was discovered, along with "dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers."

Parnell has had a long, successful run in the peanut business, starting with his father and two younger brothers in 1977. They took a struggling, $50,000-a-year peanut roasting operation and turned it into a $30-million business before selling in 1995.

Parnell continued working as a consultant to the business after the family sold it, and in 2000 he left to buy his own peanut plant again in Texas. In 2001, he bought the Blakely, Ga., operation after teaming up with a financial backer, David Royster III of Shelby, N.C.

Friends of Parnell said there is more to him than what the public has seen. He is a father to two grown daughters, a pilot of more than 30 years, an avid hunter, a reliable contributor to local charities and a man who has spent more than three decades in his business.

The public record, however, portrays someone who repeatedly has faced problems in his business years before the salmonella outbreak.

In 1990, federal inspectors found toxic mold in products produced in Parnell's peanut company in Virginia that forced a recall of the food, according to a 1992 lawsuit filed in Virginia. Parnell settled the case.

In 2001, inspectors found peanuts that may have been exposed to pesticides, and in 2006 Parnell hired a consultant to help resolve a salmonella problem at the Georgia plant.

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