WASHINGTON – The president and plant manager of a peanut company declined to defend themselves Wednesday against accusations that they knowingly sold salmonella-laced goods.
Stewart Parnell,president of the Peanut Corp. of America,and Sammy Lightsey,manager of the company's now-defunct Blakely,Ga.,plant,both exercised their constitutional right to silence,citing the advice of their lawyers as they refused to offer statements or answer questions.
Lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted Tuesday to require Parnell's attendance at the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing about the company,which the government says is the source of the salmonella outbreak that began in September.
The subcommittee also sought to examine federal oversight of food production.
“We appear to have a total systemic breakdown,” said subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak,D-Mich.
The salmonella outbreak has contributed to the deaths of eight people,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 600 cases of illness have been linked to the bacteria since September. The CDC has said that number probably represents about 3 percent of the actual number of illnesses.
Lawmakers presented e-mails that Parnell sent to Peanut Corp. employees ordering that tainted goods be shipped,even after samples of the peanut products tested positive for salmonella at a private laboratory.
In the e-mails,Parnell complained of money and time lost in testing and,in one message,noted that “I go thru this about once a week.”
According to the Food and Drug Administration,company products tested positive for salmonella 12 times in the last two years.
The FBI raided the Georgia plant earlier this week,and the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a criminal investigation.
After Parnell and Lightsey refused to respond to questions – including Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden's request that Parnell eat some of the recently recalled products,which Walden kept in a jar wrapped in caution tape – the two men were excused.
Lawmakers said they hope to reform federal oversight of food production using findings from the hearing,which also included testimony by two men who lost parents to salmonella and one whose son is recovering,plus representatives of the FDA,Georgia Department of Agriculture and two private laboratories.
One problem,according to lawmakers,is that federal law does not require private laboratories to register with the government or alert the FDA to positive salmonella tests.
Darlene Cowart,president of J. Leek Associates,a private laboratory that found salmonella in Peanut Corp. products on at least 10 occasions in 2007 and 2008,said her company would work with the government to establish such a policy.
“Well,get ready because I think you're going to have a chance to play a role on that,” Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga.,told one group of witnesses.
The hearing came one day after the Peanut Corp. shut down a second plant in Plainview, Texas,following reports of salmonella there. Nearly 2,000 foods containing Peanut Corp. products have been recalled since January.
Several committee members lamented that the problems haven't been solved.
Rep. Diana DeGette,D-Colo. said that,in the 12 years she has served on the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee,she has participated in 10 food-safety hearings. An outbreak later linked to peppers sickened thousands of Americans last summer.
She recently reintroduced legislation that would establish a tracing system for food and allow FDA to mandate recalls. Some other bills would split the FDA's oversight of food from its regulation of drugs and cosmetics.
“How many sick kids does it really take for us to finally act?” DeGette asked. “Parents would like to know that there are actually legislators working on this issue.”