* Outbreak sickened more than 700, was linked to nine deaths
* Long-awaited criminal charges target five people
* Charges include mail and wire fraud, conspiracy
* Charges carry penalties of up to 20 years in jail
(Updates with comments from Parnell lawyer, prosecutors)
By David Ingram and Toni Clarke
WASHINGTON, Feb 21 Four years after a salmonella
outbreak linked to tainted peanut butter sickened hundreds in
the United States and killed nine, authorities have charged the
former owner of the company and several employees with fraud,
conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Federal prosecutors on Thursday alleged the group covered up
the presence of salmonella in its peanut products for years,
going so far as to create fake certificates showing the products
were uncontaminated even when laboratory results showed the
The charges carry penalties of up to 20 years in jail,
although none carry a mandatory minimum sentence, prosecutors
"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," Stuart Delery, head of the U.S. Justice
Department's Civil Division, said in a statement.
The peanut scandal led to one of the largest food recalls in
U.S. history and forced Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), the
manufacturer, into liquidation. Former owner Stewart Parnell,
58, is among those charged, as is his brother, Michael Parnell,
54, a food broker at P.P. Sales who worked on behalf of the
Lawyers from Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore LLP, who represent
Stewart Parnell, said in a statement they were disappointed that
the government had decided to pursue an indictment and were
planning a "vigorous defense."
"While Mr. Parnell and others associated with PCA have to
date remained silent on the circumstances surrounding the
government's salmonella investigation, as this matter progresses
it will become clear that Mr. Parnell never intentionally
shipped or caused to be shipped any tainted food products
capable of harming PCA's customers," the law firm said.
Their statement also said U.S. health regulators were
regularly in contact with PCA about its food handling policy and
were well aware of its salmonella testing protocols, and made no
objection to the testing policies or protocols in place.
At a press conference in Washington on Thursday, Delery said
company officials had lied to inspectors from the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration, which found that PCA produced peanuts under
unsanitary conditions and failed to take adequate precautions to
keep rodents and insects out of its plant in Blakely, Georgia.
Delery said the Justice Department would do everything
possible "to protect Americans who have done nothing more than
eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
William Marler, an attorney who represented victims of the
contamination, said the indictments will have a far reaching
impact on the food industry.
"Corporate executives and directors of food safety will need
to think hard about the safety of their product when it enters
the stream of commerce," he said. "Felony counts like this one
are rare, but misdemeanor charges that can include fines and
jail time can and should happen."
Those affected by the outbreak welcomed news of the 76-count
"I'm ecstatic," said Jeff Almer, whose mother died after
eating tainted peanut butter. "I would equate it to wishing for
something to happen more than anything else you ever wanted in
life, and waiting years for it to occur."
"This has been my life's mission for the last four years
since my mom died - to try to get some justice," he said.
In addition to the Parnells, charges were also levied
against Samuel Lightsey, 48, a former operations manager at the
plant, and Mary Wilkerson, 39, who held various positions
including receptionist, office manager and quality assurance
Another employee, Daniel Kilgore, 44, has pleaded guilty to
mail and wire fraud and to the introduction of adulterated food
into interstate commerce. He waived an official indictment.
A conviction for fraud or obstruction of justice carries a
maximum prison sentence of 20 years, while illegally introducing
tainted food into interstate commerce carries a three-year
Actual sentences could be much lower, said Michael Moore,
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, who said he
expects those charged to appear in court within the next week.
(Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington and Lisa
Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jackie