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House hearing to focus on peanut executives

/ Source: The Associated Press

A congressional committee issued a subpoena Tuesday for the top executive of a small company that allegedly shipped the tainted peanut products responsible for a national salmonella outbreak.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted to compel Peanut Corp. of America President Stewart Parnell to appear at a hearing Wednesday, as a wide-ranging investigation focuses on who was responsible for an outbreak that has sickened at least 600 people and may have contributed to eight deaths.

"Hopefully, people are going to be held accountable," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations panel. The full committee approved the subpoena by voice vote, without opposition.

Stupak says he wants know how Peanut Corp. managed to sell allegedly tainted goods month after month without triggering action by state and federal health authorities.

The family-owned company, now under FBI investigation, makes only about 1 percent of U.S. peanut products. But its ingredients are used by dozens of other food companies, and the list of recalls now tops 1,840 foods.

Also on the witness list for the hearing is Sammy Lightsey, manager of Peanut Corp.'s facility in Blakely, Ga., which produced and shipped the peanut butter and peanut paste blamed for the outbreak.

Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could harm consumers' health.

Broader recall possible

Peanut Corp.'s troubles mounted this week as the FBI raided corporate headquarters in Lynchburg, Va., as well as the Georgia plant. On Monday night, the company closed a second facility, in Plainview, Texas, after its own tests found possible salmonella contamination in some products. None of the products had been distributed to consumers, but the finding raised the prospect of a broader recall.

The company has said it is still investigating what happened and has expressed regret and concern for people who became ill. It is not clear whether Parnell will testify on Wednesday or assert his constitutional right to not answer questions that may incriminate him.

A Food and Drug Administration inspection report found that the company shipped peanut products that tested positive for salmonella on 12 occasions from 2007-2008.

In some cases, Peanut Corp. got a second test before shipping that did not find salmonella. But in other cases, the company did not wait for the results of a second test before sending out its products, the FDA report said.

And, in one 2007 case, the company shipped chopped peanuts after getting a positive test result for salmonella, the FDA said.

"No matter what the tests are, they don't care — they are shipping the product," said Stupak.

Executives of two labs that tested products for Peanut Corp. also were expected to testify Wednesday.

Stupak said he thinks the labs had an ethical responsibility to report the problems to authorities.

"It's not the written law, but there's a responsibility there," he said.

There's plenty of blame to go around, he added. "Responsibility includes the FDA, it includes Parnell, it includes the plant managers, it includes Georgia officials," Stupak said.

Peanuts started out as a family business for Parnell, 54. He, his brothers Hugh Jr. and Mike, and their father, Hugh Parnell Sr., founded the company in the mid-1970s.

Hugh Parnell Sr. said Tuesday his lawyers told him not to comment on the outbreak or his son's company. The elder Parnell said he left the business nearly 20 years ago.

"Naturally, we're all quite upset," Parnell said Tuesday in a brief telephone interview.

The Parnells focused the company on the candy, ice cream and confection industries, according to material previously published on the Peanut Corp.'s Web site. The company at one point employed more than 95 workers in three states and had gross annual sales of more than $30 million.

"I have been in the peanut business since 1976 and providing a quality product at a fair cost has been the credence our business has grown up with for the past 28 years," Stewart Parnell previously was quoted on the company's Web site as saying.

Peanut Corp. is also under fire from an insurer. In a federal lawsuit filed in Virginia last week, the Hartford Casualty Insurance Co. argued that Peanut Corp.'s actions may have negated its insurance coverage.