Peanut company's owner refuses House queries

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - Jeffrey Almer's 72-year-old mother, Shirley, died in December from salmonella poisoning.

"Cancer couldn't kill her, but peanut butter did," said Almer, whose mother ate tainted peanut butter in a Minnesota rehabilitation center where she was being treated for a urinary tract infection. With a visibly controlled sense of anger, Almer told a hushed congressional committee yesterday that, the day before his mother was supposed to return home, doctors unexpectedly gave her just hours to live.

Weeks after the Food and Drug Administration traced a deadly salmonella outbreak to a Georgia peanut plant that knowingly sold bacteria-laced products to dozens of food-makers, the families of victims arrived on Capitol Hill to voice their outrage at Peanut Corp. of America. The representative of a testing lab, calling it "virtually unheard of" for anyone to release a product after testing positive for toxins, called on Congress to demand more oversight and quality control at the FDA.

Stewart Parnell, Peanut Corp.'s owner and president, refused to answer the committee's questions, repeatedly invoking his right not to incriminate himself.

The salmonella outbreak has claimed nine lives - news of the ninth fatality, an elderly Ohio woman, arrived while the congressional hearing was under way - and it is blamed for 600 illnesses. It prompted one of the largest recalls ever, with more than 1,800 products pulled from store shelves.

"The blood of eight victims are on their hands," Almer said of Peanut Corp. at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee before learning news of the ninth death. "I want to see them serve jail time."

Lou Tousignant's father, Clifford, a highly decorated Korean War veteran with three Purple Hearts, died in a Minnesota nursing home in January after eating salmonella-tainted peanut butter. After playing a moving video tribute that left many in the audience wiping away tears, Tousignant asked how an outbreak of this magnitude could be allowed to happen.

"Please do your job," Tousignant told the committee's members. "How can we truly be the leader of the free world when we can't keep our citizens safe from the food we eat?"

Peter Hurley, father of a 3-year-old severely sickened in early January by the outbreak, said that when his son, Jacob, started experiencing symptoms at the onset of salmonella poisoning, Jacob turned to the very comfort food that was making him ill: Keebler's Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.

After a Saturday night visit from the Oregon state epidemiologist, Dr. William Keene, to collect Jacob's stool sample and the remaining three Keebler crackers left in the box, tests concluded a positive match with the salmonella strain linked to the peanut butter outbreak.

The House panel released e-mail messages obtained by its investigators showing Parnell ordered products identified with salmonella to be shipped and quoting his complaints that tests discovering the contaminated food were "costing us huge $$$$$."

In mid-January, after the national outbreak was tied to his company, Parnell told Food and Drug Administration officials that he and his company "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."

The e-mails show the company's president was alerted several times that various batches of the company's products were infected with salmonella. Yet according to Parnell's e-mail responses, he instructed staff to "turn the product loose" and that he goes "thru this once a week. I will hold my breath ... again."

At yesterday's committee hearing, Parnell said only: "Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectively decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution."

Peanut Corp. plant manager Sammy Lightsey also invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.

Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden held up a gallon-sized bucket wrapped in yellow crime scene tape, presumably containing some type of recalled peanut butter product, and asked Parnell if he would be willing to "take the lid off" and eat any of it.

Parnell again invoked the Fifth Amendment and was ushered out of the hearing room along with Lightsey and their counsel. Prior to Parnell's dismissal, committee chairman and Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak asked: "The food poisoning of people, is that just a cost of doing business for you?"

Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories, testified that his company tested Peanut Corp. products and notified the company that salmonella was found in products originating at its Georgia plant.

"It is not unusual for Deibel Labs or other food testing laboratories to find that samples clients submit do test positive for salmonella and other pathogens, nor is it unusual that clients request that samples be retested," Deibel said. "What is virtually unheard of is for an entity to disregard those results and place potentially contaminated products into the stream of commerce."

Calling product testing the "last chance to catch a problem," Deibel said FDA quality control must be updated and food safety guidelines enhanced in order to eliminate problems such as this from the outset.

On Jan. 28, Peanut Corp. issued a voluntary recall of all peanut and peanut butter products processed in the Blakely, Ga., plant since Jan. 1, 2007.

Now under FBI investigation, the company's Lynchburg, Va., corporate headquarters was raided this week. Peanut Corp. closed a second facility in Texas on Monday after test results indicated the presence of salmonella in samples taken from that plant as well.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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