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Food Fiascos: Peanut Corporation of America

January 05, 2022 by FreshByte Software

When it comes to “Food Fiascos” you need to start with the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) where lax sanitary conditions and unethical actions led to a 2008-09 salmonella outbreak that not only led to illness and death but bankrupted a $25 million company in months and sent its CEO to prison for 28 years in the stiffest penalty ever in a food-borne illness case.

In a final report issued in April 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that a strain of Salmonella serotype Typhimurium, linked to peanut butter sourced back to PCA processing plants, had sickened 714 people across 46 states with nine deaths reported.

The Wall Street Journal summed up this food fiasco thus: “For any business thinking of cheating on quality to save a few bucks, here are some famous last words: Peanut Corporation of America.”

Peanut Corporations of America: Lax Sanitary Conditions and Corporate Criminal Behavior

What makes this case stand out is that the Salmonella outbreak was not just a result of unsanitary conditions, but unethical corporate behavior, later found by the courts to be criminal.

“Evidence that company officials knowingly released contaminated product onto the marketplace first surfaced in February of 2009 following an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” said Food Safety News in 2013. “Now, four years later, the United States Department of Justice has filed a criminal indictment against four former PCA officials and revealed that another pled guilty to 29 counts of fraud earlier this month. The offenses cited in this indictment stretch back far beyond the 2008-2009 outbreak, all the way back to 2003.”

Peanut Corporation of America CEO, then 61-year-old Stewart Parnell, was sentenced to 28 years in prison – a judgment deemed by his attorneys as a life sentence.

"It's just been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family," Parnell, according to the Associated Press, told a courtroom filled with families of children who survived violent illnesses and elderly adults who died after eating his company's peanut butter. "All I can do is come before you and ask for forgiveness from you and the people back here. I'm truly sorry for what happened."

The Wall Street Journal reported that “the peanut-processing company at the center of a salmonella outbreak had a history of salmonella contamination, but the top executive, concerned about losing money, told employees to ship suspect products anyway, lawmakers said at a congressional hearing.”

Peanut Corporation of America Crisis Timeline

The events of the PCA crisis spiraled quickly with the company ceasing production and declaring bankruptcy just five months after the first confirmed case in September 2008.

PCA at the time did not sell products directly to the public but provided peanuts, peanut butter, peanut meal, and peanut paste to the institutional food market that supplied facilities such as schools, nursing homes and prisons.

The CDC later finds that ill patient’s range in age from under 1 to 98 years with half of ill persons younger than 16 years.

Here is the timeline for the salmonella outbreak:

Sept. 6, 2008 – First victim of outbreak falls ill.

Nov. 10, 2008 – CDC’s PulseNet staff noted a small and highly dispersed multistate cluster of 13 Salmonella Typhimurium isolates with an unusual DNA fingerprint or pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern reported from 12 states.

Nov. 25, 2008 - CDC’s OutbreakNet team, working with state and local partners, began an epidemiologic assessment of that cluster, which had increased to 35 isolates.

Dec. 2, 2008 - CDC and state and local partners began an assessment of a second cluster of 41 Salmonella Typhimurium isolates.

Jan. 3-4, 2009 - Preliminary analysis of the first national case-control study conducted by CDC and public health officials in multiple states comparing foods eaten by ill and well persons indicates that peanut butter is a likely source of the bacteria causing the infections:

  • An investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health suggested King Nut brand creamy peanut butter, produced by the PCA, as a likely source of Salmonella infections among many ill persons in Minnesota.
  • The Connecticut Department of Public Health Laboratory and the Georgia Department of Agriculture independently isolated Salmonella from unopened 5-pound containers of King Nut brand peanut butter.
  • The Michigan Department of Community Health isolated Salmonella from an unopened 5-pound container of King Nut brand peanut butter. They have identified the Salmonella found in their container as the outbreak strain.

Jan. 17-19, 2009 – To clarify whether other peanut-containing foods are associated with the outbreak, CDC along with state partners conducted a second national case-control study. Preliminary analysis of data received reveals an association between illness and consumption of pre-packaged peanut butter crackers, specifically with Austin and Keebler brands, produced using peanut paste from PCA.

Jan. 28, 2009 – PCA announces voluntary recall of all peanuts and peanut products processed in its Georgia facility since Jan. 1, 2007. All production in PCA plants ceases.

Feb. 2, 2009 – FDA investigation reveals PCA shipped products before receiving positive test results for Salmonella on 12 occasions between 2007 and 2009.

Feb. 14, 2009 – PCA files for bankruptcy.

U.S. Attorney Michael Moore of Georgia's Middle District, whose office prosecuted the PCA case, called it "a landmark with implications that will resonate not just in the food industry but in corporate boardrooms across the country."

Check back as FreshByte Software profiles more Food Fiascos.

Tags: Traceability, Food Recalls

FreshByte Software

Written by FreshByte Software

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