US & Canada

Managers charged in US peanut salmonella outbreak

Stewart Parnell, president of Peanut Corp of America, file picture from 2009
Image caption Stewart Parnell declined to testify before Congress in 2009

Former managers at a peanut company have been charged in the US state of Georgia over a salmonella outbreak that caused nine deaths in 2008 and 2009.

Prosecutors say managers at Peanut Corporation of America shipped peanuts and products they knew were tainted.

More than 575 people in more than 40 states were sickened in the outbreak, including hundreds of children.

A lawyer for former owner Stewart Parnell said inspectors had been aware of the company's testing practices.

The charges carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison, prosecutors say.

Mr Parnell, his brother, former Vice-President Michael Parnell, as well as former plant managers Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore, have been charged with fraud, selling "adulterated and misbranded food", and conspiracy.

In addition, former plant worker Mary Wilkerson was charged with obstruction of justice.

Kilgore has already pleaded guilty in the case.

Prosecutors say the Parnells, Mr Lightsey and Kilgore conspired to manufacture and sell peanuts and peanut products that lab tests had shown were tainted with salmonella.

'Vigorous defence'

They created fake certificates saying the foods were safe, when in fact they had either not been tested or had been found to have been contaminated, prosecutors said. Stewart Parnell, Mr Lightsey and Ms Wilkerson lied to visiting government inspectors, they said.

"When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk," said Stuart Delery, head of the justice department's civil division.

Image caption Inspectors found unsanitary conditions at the peanut plant in Blakely, Georgia

"The Department of Justice 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."

After federal prosecutors unsealed the indictment on Thursday, lawyers representing Stewart Parnell promised "a vigorous defence".

"As the facts in this case are revealed, it will become apparent that the FDA was in regular contact with [Peanut Corporation of America] about its food handling policy and was well aware of its salmonella testing protocols," the law firm said in a statement.

After the outbreak, the US Food and Drug Administration found widespread contamination at the company's plant in Blakely, Georgia, after identifying it as a possible source of the tainted peanuts and peanut products.

The plant roasted raw peanuts to make granulated peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste. The products were sold across the US.

The company went bankrupt after a recall of its products.

In 2010, a judge approved a $12m (£7.7m) settlement to compensate more than 100 salmonella victims.

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