ATLANTA — At the height of the nationwide salmonella outbreak nearly a year ago, FBI agents raided two peanut plants and carried away boxes of evidence. FDA inspectors found roaches, mold and a leaky roof. Then, Congress revealed e-mails from the peanut company's top executive that seemed to suggest the pursuit of profits over ensuring public safety.
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Despite the fanfare over the criminal probe of one of the largest product recalls ever, no one has yet been charged in the outbreak, which was linked to hundreds of illnesses and nine deaths.
Federal prosecutions in food-illness outbreaks are rare, but food safety experts and legal analysts say the salmonella investigation seemed as cut-and-dry as any case.
After all, investigators said the head of the company at the center of the probe fired off e-mails to employees amid reports salmonella had been detected in his products to "turn them loose" and said the business "desperately" needed to turn raw peanuts into money.
Nine months after the e-mails were made public by a U.S. House panel, prosecutors have been tightlipped on whether executives with Peanut Corp. of America will face charges, infuriating relatives of those sickened by the salmonella.
"I thought prosecutions were a no-brainer," said Lou Tousignant, whose 78-year-old father died in January from salmonella poisoning after eating tainted peanut butter in his nursing home.
"It seems like it's been forgotten. That's kind of how the country ebbs and flows — it's in the news for a while, then everything quiets down."
Food safety prosecutions typically lead to fines against companies rather than prison time, and experts and attorneys sensed criminal charges could be imminent in the salmonella case.
"It does surprise me," said Creighton Magid, a Washington-based products liability attorney who is often on the defense side.
The outbreak was traced to the company's peanut plant in Blakely, Ga., where Food and Drug Administration inspectors found roaches and mold while trying to figure out the source of the salmonella. In one e-mail from Stewart Parnell, the head of the Virginia-based company, he said his workers "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money." In another exchange, he told his plant manager to "turn them loose" after products once deemed contaminated were cleared in a second test.
Last year, when a final lab test found salmonella, Parnell expressed concern.
"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."
When summoned by a congressional subpoena, Parnell repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself. He did not return several phone calls or e-mail messages seeking comment for this story. His company, which has filed for bankruptcy, has said it is cooperating with federal investigators.
G.F. "Pete" Peterman, the acting U.S. Attorney whose district includes the southwest Georgia peanut plant at the center of the outbreak, declined comment. Craig Earnest, the Early County district attorney, said he's unaware of any developments in the investigation.
Food safety watchdogs said criminal charges have been brought against a handful of companies involved in high-profile outbreaks. Federal law allows cases to be prosecuted without proof the company knew it was distributing contaminated food.
Recent convictions include the 2001 case against Sara Lee Corp., which was fined $200,000 and agreed to pay $3 million on food safety research after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of selling tainted meats in a listeria outbreak that killed 15 people. The plea came three years after the company was linked to the contamination.
SalmonellaOther outbreaks haven't yielded charges. Prosecutors decided not to go forward with a case against two produce companies involved in a 2006 tainted spinach case that killed three people and sickened 200 others, saying the investigation found growers and processors did not deliberately skirt the law.
Former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander of Georgia said prosecutors may be sifting through the dozens of lawsuits filed on behalf of victims before they take action. The deadline for personal injury claims against the company was Oct. 31, but the number of people seeking a share of $12 million in insurance is not yet available.
Alexander also said there may be less urgency to pursue criminal charges because the company's plants have been shuttered and the outbreak contained.
"Once the threat of harm is gone, investigations like that can take a longer time," Alexander said.
The victims are eager for action.
Gabrielle Meunier, a Vermont mother whose 7-year-old son Christopher was hospitalized for a week after he was poisoned by salmonella in late 2008, said she was mystified.
"The time is now," she said. "If the company's executives are spared prosecution, what does that say to the American public?"
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