Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Peanut Company President Refuses to Testify

The head of the company linked to a massive salmonella outbreak in peanut products refused to testify at a congressional hearing Wednesday as lawmakers accused him of caring more about profits than food safety.

Peanut Corp. of America President Stewart Parnell invoked his constitutional right not to testify, as did his Blakely, Ga., plant manager, during the hearing before a House subcommittee. Both also refused to eat recalled products that a lawmaker offered them from a jar.

The Food and Drug Administration has said that PCA distributed products in 2007 and 2008 that had tested positive for salmonella. The products should not have been shipped, the FDA said.

The outbreak has sickened more than 600 people and may have contributed to nine deaths. More than 1,900 products have been recalled, making it one of the biggest recalls ever. A criminal probe is underway.

"We are shocked at what's been going on in this company," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., at the hearing.

The hearing revealed company e-mails indicating frustration over costs and repeated testing.

In September, according to one e-mail, Parnell was told by the Blakely plant manager that a product had been shipped that tested positive for salmonella. The product would be retested, Parnell was told. The plant manager also told Parnell that customers receiving the product should put it on hold, meaning not use or sell it. A week later, an e-mail from Parnell said, "We need to discuss this ... the time lapse ... is costing us huge $$$$$."

Just days after PCA's recall began last month, Parnell pleaded with FDA officials to let the company "at least ... turn the Raw Peanuts on our floor into money," according to a document released at the hearing.

The hearing also revealed that as far back as 2006, the plant had a salmonella finding, potentially linked to Chinese-supplied organic peanuts, according to a November 2006 letter to the company.

JLA USA, which PCA had hired to investigate the incident, told PCA in the letter that its roasting step -- a kill step for salmonella -- hadn't been adequately checked for efficiency and noted that improvements were underway. After an inspection last month, the FDA said the plant failed to show that its roasting was an effective kill step.

JLA President Darlene Cowart also told lawmakers that it appeared that PCA largely dropped JLA as a lab because the lab found higher bacterial counts than others did.

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