Blakely Salmonella Trial Continues

| September 11, 2014

court-room-judge-verdict-scales-of-justiceEric Baker, Valdosta Today Newsdesk:

ALBANY – The nine week federal prosecution of corporate officers and employees of a now defunct peanut processing plant in Blakely, a southwest Georgia city, came to a close yesterday after only one hour of defense testimony from two witnesses.

The 76 count indictment alleged that Stewart Parnell, founder and owner of Peanut Corporation of America, his brother Michael Parnell and former quality control manager Mary Wilkerson defrauded and conspired to defraud customers by shipping peanut paste and peanut butter that was tainted with salmonella poisoning to customers without disclosing the presence of the bacteria. They allegedly shipped the product, which is used in a variety of snacks, with falsified test results.

Salmonella is a type of food poisoning that can occur during the processing and handling of certain foods. Contact with the bacteria is more common in the summer than winter and young children, older adults and those with low immune systems are particularly susceptible to the infection.

A 2009 salmonella outbreak occurred in 46 states was traced to product produced by Peanut Corporation. Over 700 people were diagnosed with the bacteria and nine died of the infection. The resulting recall of the product was one of the largest recalls of its kind in the nation. The recall brought about the close of the company and its eventual bankruptcy filing.

This is the first federal criminal trial brought as a result of a deadly outbreak of bacteria contaminated food.

Aside from the fraud claims, Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson were also charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly withholding information during the investigation process. Legal experts say such charges are common where the government is forced to go to trial since an obstruction of justice charge can enhance the length of any sentence above the statutory limits of a particular charge.

Michael Parnell maintained that he was never an officer, owner or employee of Peanut Corporation but rather the owner of PP Sales and was a buyer for Kellogg’s, responsible only for the tanker trucks that transported the peanut paste from the Blakely facility to the Kellogg’s plant. Prosecutors, however, sought to show that he was more heavily involved in production and altering test results.

The defendant​s​ face up to 20 years for each fraud count conviction. Closing arguments are set for today.

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