A Georgia food processor linked to a deadly salmonella outbreak shipped thousands of pounds of peanut products after learning its products were contaminated and cheated on testing, a former plant manager testified this week.
Samuel Lightsey is a key government witness against his former boss, Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, and two others.
He described documents to jurors that show Peanut Corporation shipped peanuts to companies in Missouri, Illinois and other points after receiving laboratory warnings that product samples had tested positive for salmonella. In other instances, the company cheated on safety testing by switching samples, Lightsey said.
In one instance, company records from September 2007 show the firm requested testing on a sample of peanut paste made for Kellogg’s before plant workers actually made the paste. Lightsey said company workers had pulled a sample from an earlier batch. Prosecutor Patrick Hearn asked whether the company could have known whether those products were safe.
“They would have not known unless they had additional samples pulled,” Lightsey said.
The 2008-09 salmonella outbreak caused one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Food safety investigators found more than 700 people across the country were infected and nine people died — three in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.
Lightsey examined photographs showing evidence of water leaks and described sanitation problems inside the plant. Salmonella can be spread when outside water carrying contaminants seeps into a food processing facility. The photographs showed what Lightsey described as mold and mildew, water stains under a vent in a packaging room and condensation around plant fans. Lightsey said workers kept a pellet gun inside the facility so they could shoot birds that got inside.
“There was multiple areas in the plant that were leaking,” said Lightsey, who explained workers would cover food products with plastic to keep them dry.
Prosecutors accuse Parnell and his brother and food broker, Michael Parnell, of shipping contaminated peanut products used in foods including peanut butter crackers, ice cream and candied apples. They also say the brothers covered up tests that confirmed the presence of salmonella in their shipments. Stewart Parnell and the Georgia plant’s quality assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, are also charged with obstructing justice.
Defense attorneys have not yet started questioning Lightsey, who pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in May and agreed to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence. Stewart Parnell’s attorneys have said he has been blamed for mistakes made by his employees.