Peanut food safety is a major concern as the former manager of a Georgia peanut plant knowingly shipped out peanuts with false safety documents, causing nine deaths and making over 700 more sick. The Georgia peanut plant manager, Sammy Lightsey, told jurors that he did not think that he was “intentionally hurting anyone” while testifying at the trial of his former boss, Stewart Parnell. Quality assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, were all indicted for shipping peanuts tainted with salmonella and falsifying safety documents to cover up lab tests showing the nuts tested positive for the bacteria.
Salmonella is a major food safety concern that makes millions sick every year, with numbers reaching 1.2 million in the United States alone and resulting in approximately 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths. Salmonella causes severe diarrhea, fever, chills, body aches, vomiting and stomach cramps within 12-72 hours of a person becoming infected. The symptoms caused by the Salmonella bacteria usually last four to seven days and can be so severe the infected person has to be hospitalized.
Severe dehydration is the cause of hospitalization for those infected with salmonella. Treatment often consists of intravenous fluid hydration and a round of antibiotics. Recently, it has become more difficult to treat salmonella, as the bacteria is becoming antibiotic resistant. Salmonella can also cause reactive arthritis in up to 15 percent of those infected, a complication of the illness that usually becomes apparent around 18 days after the infection occurs.
Lightsey, who received an indictment as well, plead guilty to seven criminal counts and agreed to testify against his co-defendants to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. Lightsey worked at the plant from June 2008 to 2009 when the plant was shut down and subsequently went out of business. He testified that he contacted Michael after discovering the plant had been shipping peanut paste to Kellogg’s Corporation prior to waiting the 48 hours it took to receive lab results that ensured the peanuts were not tainted and Michael told him “not to worry about it.” He went on to say that Michael told him it had been set-up before Lightsey had been hired and he would “take care of Kellogg’s.”
The case is the first ever where officers and managers have been federally indicted on charges related to food poisoning. Lightsey faced up to 76 years in prison before taking the plea deal that would ensure he spent less than six years in federal prison. Lightsey was the first person to lie to investigators from the FDA when they showed up inquiring about the false food safety documents and tests after tracing the tainted peanuts that were shipped to Kellogg’s back to the Georgia plant. He told the FDA agents the plant had received one positive salmonella test, which had turned out to be a false positive during his time as a manager for the company. The FDA ultimately found 12 positive salmonella tests.
Lightsey plead guilty to charges incriminating himself for knowingly sending tainted peanut paste to one of the largest food manufacturers and distributors in the U.S., which used the paste in peanut butter crackers made for human consumption. Or, at the least not waiting for test results to come back ensuring the nuts were not tainted with salmonella or other contaminants and failing to notify Kellogg’s of the contamination to prevent the enormous corporation from sending the poisonous food to stores all over the country.
The case brings up major safety concerns in the food industry, which relies on the honesty of plant managers and employees to test food for known contaminants. In this case, the owners and plant managers are accused of falsifying safety documents and not performing law required food safety tests prior to shipping contaminated peanut paste to one of the largest food manufacturing and distributing companies in the country. This raises concerns that additional regulations need to be set to prevent this from happening again. The trial will commence on Monday and a verdict will be reached in a few weeks.
By Amy Gilmore