Stewart Parnell appeared at the hearing after he was ordered by subpoena to do so, but he chose to exercise his constitutional right to refuse to testify, as did the manager of the PCA plant in Blakely, Georgia, which is at the center of the salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the congressional committee was shown internal emails obtained from the company, including one written by PCA president Stewart Parnell to employees on January 12, the day before the recall began. It accused the media “looking for a news story where there currently isn’t one”, and claimed: “We have never found any salmonella at all.”
The emails have been made public on the Committee’s website.
However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that its investigation of the plant identified “at least 12 instances in 2007 and 2008 when the firm… identified some type of salmonella” and accused the PCA of knowingly shipping products containing salmonella during this time.
In June last year Parnell received an email from the Blakely, Georgia plant warning of potential salmonella contamination. He replied: “I go thru this about once a week...I will hold my breath…again.”
Then, two months later, peanut butter products from the plant – some of which had already been distributed – tested positive for salmonella. They were then retested and obtained a negative result, at which point Parnell emailed: “Okay, let’s turn them loose then.”
The FDA has said that it is well known that salmonella can be missed in tests, so any positive result should lead to the product being discarded.
“Costing huge $$$$$”
The oversight sub-committee of the House of Energy and Commerce Committee, which held the hearing, was shown another email, written in October, in which Parnell expressed concern at the cost of holding and retesting products after a batch of peanut meal tested positive for salmonella.
“We need to discuss this…the time lapse, besides the cost is costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice,” Parnell told the Blakely plant manager in the email.
He wrote that he wanted to “at the very least mimic” the policy of competing peanut processors, and added: “We need to protect our self and the problem is that the tests absolutely give us no protection, just an indication at best.”
More than 600 people have been sickened by the current outbreak, which has been linked to nine deaths, and triggered one of the largest product recalls in history, with more than 1,900 products recalled so far.