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Blakely, Georgia is a small town in Early County, near the Alabama state line. It is home to the Peanut Corporation of America, a large manufacturer and distributor of peanuts used in hundreds of other commercial food products across the country. In 2009, more than 3,000 products were recalled, nearly 1,000 people sickened, and many killed, by an outbreak of salmonella. The peanuts from Peanut Corporation of America had wound up in thousands of products, and they were tainted with salmonella. The criminal investigation has been going ever since, and the new federal indictments charge Peanut Corporation executives with 76 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud, obstruction of justice, and “the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead”.
FDA officials inspecting the Peanut Corporation of America’s facilities found mold, a leaky roof, cockroaches, and other potential sources of contamination. Internal emails from the company show that after a batch of peanuts tested positive for salmonella but then negative in a subsequent test, company owner Stewart Parnell instructed his employees to “turn them loose” into the market. The indictments even charge that employees fabricated certificates saying peanuts were safe and had passed their testing, when the opposite was true. This enormous salmonella outbreak in 2009, and a 2011 outbreak of listeria caused by cantaloupe, have shone a spotlight on food safety in America. It is unacceptable for corporate food suppliers to endanger the public health in their efforts to pad their company’s profits. Criminal investigations into the 2010 salmonella outbreak caused by eggs, and the 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 30 people, are still underway.
It has historically been very rare that food poisoning cases lead to federal criminal indictments, so the strong message from the Department of Justice here is clearly intended to serve as a warning to other companies who may be engaged in similar practices. The Peanut Corporation executives could be facing twenty year prison sentences for these charges, and we can only hope that the severity of this federal response is serving as clear notice to executives at food companies across the country: do not compromise consumer health and safety for the sake of increased profit.