WASHINGTON — See the jar, the congressman challenged Stewart Parnell, holding up a container of the peanut seller's products and asking if he'd dare eat them. Parnell pleaded the Fifth.
The owner of the peanut company at the heart of the massive salmonella recall refused to answer the lawmaker's questions _ or any others _ Wednesday about the bacteria-tainted products he defiantly told employees to ship to some 50 manufacturers of cookies, crackers and ice cream.
"Turn them loose," Parnell had told his plant manager in an internal e-mail disclosed at the House hearing. The e-mail referred to products that once were deemed contaminated but were cleared in a second test last year.
Summoned by congressional subpoena, the owner of Peanut Corp. of America repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the salmonella outbreak that has sickened some 600 people, may be linked to nine deaths _ the latest reported in Ohio on Wednesday _ and resulted in one of the largest product recalls of more than 1,900 items.
Parnell sat stiffly, his hands folded in his lap at the witness table, as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held up a clear jar of his company's products wrapped in crime-scene tape and asked if he would eat them.
"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution," Parnell responded.
After he repeated the statement several times, lawmakers dismissed him from the hearing.
Shortly after Parnell's appearance, a lab tester told the panel that the company discovered salmonella at its Blakely, Ga., plant as far back as 2006. Food and Drug Administration officials told lawmakers more federal inspections could have helped prevent the outbreak.
"We appear to have a total systemic breakdown," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations subcommittee.
Cookies, candy, crackers, granola bars and other products made with contaminated peanuts have been shipped to schools, stores and nursing homes, prompting the massive recall. The government raided the company's Georgia plant on Monday, and Peanut Corp. closed its Plainview, Texas, facility.
A federal criminal investigation is under way.
The House panel released e-mails obtained by its investigators showing Parnell ordered products identified with salmonella to be shipped and quoting his complaints that tests discovering the contaminated food were "costing us huge $$$$$."
In mid-January, after the national outbreak was tied to his company, Parnell told Food and Drug Administration officials that he and his company "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."
In a separate message to his employees, Parnell insisted that the outbreak did not start at his plant, calling that a misunderstanding by the media and public health officials. "No salmonella has been found anywhere else in our products, or in our plants, or in any unopened containers of our product," he said in a Jan. 12 e-mail.
In another exchange, Parnell complained to a worker after they notified him that salmonella had been found in more products.
"I go thru this about once a week," he wrote in a June 2008 e-mail. "I will hold my breath .... again."
Last year, when a final lab test found salmonella, Parnell expressed concern about the cost and delays in moving his products.
"We need to discuss this," he wrote in an Oct. 6 e-mail to Sammy Lightsey, his plant manager. "The time lapse, beside the cost is costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice."
Lightsey also invoked his right not to testify when he appeared alongside Parnell before the subcommittee.
"Their behavior is criminal, in my opinion. I want to see jail time," said Jeffrey Almer, whose 72-year-old mother died Dec. 21 in Minnesota of salmonella poisoning after eating Peanut Corp.'s peanut butter. Almer and other relatives of victims urged lawmakers to approve mandatory product recalls and improve public notice about contaminated food.
Darlene Cowart of JLA USA testing service said the company contacted her in November 2006 to help control salmonella discovered in the plant.
Cowart said she made one visit to the plant at the company's request and pointed out problems with peanut roasting and storage of peanuts that could have led to the salmonella. She testified that Peanut Corp. officials said they believed the salmonella came from organic Chinese peanuts.
An FDA inspection report had placed the earliest presence of salmonella in June 2007, the first of a dozen times the company received private lab results identifying the bacteria in its products.
Cowart said she believed Peanut Corp. stopped using her company for lab tests because it identified salmonella too many times.
The company's internal records show it "was more concerned with its bottom line than the safety of its customers," said committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Charles Deibel, president of Deibel Laboratories Inc., said his company was among those that tested Peanut Corp. products and notified the Georgia plant that salmonella was found. Peanut Corp. sold the products anyway, according to an FDA inspection report.
"What is virtually unheard of is for an entity to disregard those results and place potentially contaminated products into the stream of commerce," Deibel said.
Deibel said he hopes the crisis leads to a greater role for FDA in overseeing food safety and providing more guidance to food makers.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.
On the Net:
FDA's salmonella page: http://tinyurl.com/8srctw