ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — The owner of a Georgia peanut plant where a deadly salmonella outbreak originated five years ago approved sales of tainted food "whatever the risk," including shipments known to have tested positive for the bacteria and others sent with fake lab results and no real confirmation the products were safe to eat, a prosecutor told jurors during closing arguments in the food-poisoning trial Thursday.
Former Peanut Corporation owner Stewart Parnell and two co-defendants have been on trial in U.S. District Court since Aug. 1. Prosecutors spent four hours before court adjourned Thursday summing up a case that required more than five weeks of testimony from nearly 50 witnesses, plus an estimated 1,000 documents including company emails, sales records and lab analysis reports.
Defense attorneys were scheduled to argue their final case to jurors Friday. Then it will be the jury's turn to decide whether the defendants committed crimes that led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Investigators concluded nine people died from salmonella lurking in food traced back to the company's plant in rural Blakely, and 714 got sick. Experts say it's the first time food processors have been tried in federal court in a food poisoning case.
Prosecutors say Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, shipped peanuts and peanut butter they knew had tested positive for salmonella to customers that used them as ingredients in products from peanut butter crackers to pet food. The Parnell brothers are also charged with faking lab results for salmonella and other contaminants so they wouldn't have to wait for real testing.
In his closing statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Dasher repeatedly quoted an email Stewart Parnell sent in March 2007 after a subordinate asked about a shipment that was delayed while the rural Georgia plant awaited lab results. "(Expletive), just ship it," Parnell wrote. "I cannot afford to (lose) another customer."
"It was Stewart Parnell's and his company's mission statement to 'just ship it' — ship the product regardless of whether you know it's safe or not, or if you know it's not safe," Dasher said. "...Whatever the cost, whatever the risk, whatever the fraud or the lies involved, just ship it."
Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson, the plant's quality assurance manager, are also charged with obstruction of justice by hiding positive salmonella tests from investigators. The plant was shut down in 2009 and Peanut Corporation went bankrupt. Two former plant managers pleaded guilty in the case and testified against their former boss and the others.
Inspectors who arrived at the Georgia plant after the outbreak was traced to its doors in 2009 found a leaky roof and evidence of roaches and rodents inside — all potential culprits for allowing salmonella bacteria to enter the plant and grow. They also found the peanut roaster wasn't properly temperature regulated to ensure the cooking process killed salmonella. Those infected with the bacteria can develop diarrhea, fever and have abdominal cramps.
Stewart Parnell's attorneys have previously said he was unaware of problems at the plant as he tried to run the Georgia plant and two others from his home in Lynchburg, Virginia. They have also noted that federal law doesn't require salmonella testing for peanut products.
However, Peanut Corporation was required to perform lab tests by its customers. The Parnell brothers are accused of defrauding them by faking salmonella tests and withholding lab results when they were positive.
"The point is there are laws against committing fraud and cheating and lying to your customers in order to make money," Dasher said.
Michael Parnell's lawyer has previously pointed out he didn't work for Peanut Corporation, but rather was essentially a customer who bought peanut paste from the Georgia plant to supply Kellogg's. Prosecutors say he worked closely with plant managers to keep up with Kellogg's demands of 40,000 pounds of peanut paste twice a week.
Wilkerson's attorney has said she cooperated with investigators as best she could after the outbreak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the salmonella outbreak sickened Americans in 46 states. Three people died in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.