U.S. peanut firm owner refuses to testify on salmonella

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The owner of the U.S. peanut company blamed for a salmonella outbreak refused to answer questions before Congress on Wednesday, while internal company messages showed him complaining about lost profits while the scare was investigated.

Salmonella bacteria in an undated image courtesy of the CDC. REUTERS/CDC/Handout

The salmonella outbreak traced to a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Georgia, has sickened at least 600 people, more than half of them children, and may have killed nine people.

It has forced one of the biggest food recalls in U.S. history, scared Americans away from one of their favorite foods and brought the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under intense scrutiny.

“Lives were lost and people were sickened because they took a chance, I believe knowingly, with products that were contaminated,” said Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden.

Peanut Corporation of America owner and president Stewart Parnell, subpoenaed to appear before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, looked straight ahead with arms folded when called to testify.

“On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution,” he said several times, referring to the right of Americans not to be forced to incriminate themselves.

Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, displayed internal company e-mails from Parnell. “What they show is this company cared more about its financial bottom line than about the safety of its customers,” Waxman said.

One e-mail said the time required to deal with contaminated products, some of which had been shipped, was “costing us huge $$$$” while another said the employees “desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money.”

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FDA officials say they have evidence that internal tests conducted by Peanut Corporation found 12 instances of salmonella since 2007 at the Blakely facility, but the company sold the products anyway.

In an e-mail to his plant manager, Parnell said it was OK “to turn them loose” after a second test cleared products that had once tested positive for salmonella.

More than 1,800 products have been recalled, either because they were linked to PCA or because such links could not be ruled out.

FBI officials in Atlanta and Virginia said on Monday they had joined the FDA in a criminal investigation of the company.

Lawmakers said the FDA does not have access to all the testing records it should to protect the food supply.

“If we had greater authority to access these kinds of records ... we would get a lot more information in a timely manner,” said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Sundlof also said inspections should be conducted more frequently, and in the case of the Blakely plant, that it was “potentially possible” more thorough and frequent inspections could have prevented the outbreak.

FDA officials have been pressing Congress for more authority for years, including giving the agency the authority to conduct a mandatory recall.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress proposing food safety overhauls, but they have stalled. The most popular focus on giving FDA more money and authority and splitting the agency to create a separate organization in charge of food safety.

“Our government failed you. There is no excuse we can offer you,” Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky told relatives of victims who testified at the hearing. “We will act to make your families safer from this kind of potential killer.”

Editing by Maggie Fox and Cynthia Osterman