Updated Friday, February 22, 2013 at 07:08 AM
A federal grand jury, investigating one of the largest U.S. food-related recalls, indicted four executives at the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America, accusing them of knowing their products were tainted with salmonella bacteria, covering up the evidence and selling the food anyway.
The 76-count criminal indictment, disclosed Thursday, accused the four of engaging “in multiple schemes to defraud the company’s customers.”
Named as defendants were the former president, Stewart Parnell; his brother Michael, a food broker representing the company; Samuel Lightsey, operations manager at the company’s Blakely, Ga., plant; and Mary Wilkerson, the plant’s quality-assurance manager.
Peanut butter, roasted peanuts and other items prepared at the plant were linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 700 people in 46 states, including Washington, and was linked to nine deaths, including that of Clifford Tousignant, 80.
“I didn’t think there’d ever be any criminal charges filed. It was something I had pretty much given up on,” said his son, Lou Tousignant of Walnut Creek, Calif. “I’m a little emotionally shot, but it’s a pretty good day.”
The four executives allegedly failed to keep rodents and insects out of the plant, continued to ship products even when testing showed salmonella contamination, fabricated quality-assurance labels and lied to and misled investigators once the outbreak occurred, according to the Justice Department.
The peanut recall affected thousands of products made since 2007, including cookies, cereal and pet treats, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The Justice Department “will not hesitate to pursue any person whose criminal conduct risks the safety of Americans who have done nothing more than eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich,” said Stuart Delery, who heads the department’s Civil Division.
Lawyers for three of the defendants couldn’t be reached for comment. Lightsey’s attorney, Jim Parkman, said he and his client were “ready to get to the rest of the story.”
Felony charges of this scope are “unusual” in food-related cases, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
Food-safety lawyer Bill Marler of Seattle said the indictments will have a “far-reaching impact on the food industry.”
“Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters the stream of commerce,” he said.
The Parnell brothers and Lightsey are charged with mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead. Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson, who served in several positions, are charged with obstruction of justice.
The indictment was unsealed Wednesday and disclosed publicly Thursday.
A former employee, Daniel Kilgore, pleaded guilty to several charges, the Justice Department said.
Lightsey attorney Parkman said he and his client have “been waiting for years for something to happen” on the case.
Peanut Corp. of America filed for bankruptcy protection soon after the salmonella outbreak.
Stewart Parnell was presidentof company.