The long-awaited Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) trial got underway with opening statements Friday morning in Albany, GA, and it was not long before the jury learned about Stewart Parnell’s three most infamous words: “Just ship it.” That was allegedly his reply when employees wanted to know what to do when laboratory tests came back positive for Salmonella or results were delayed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney K. Alan Dasher, speaking for the prosecution team (which also includes Patrick H. Hearn and Mary Englehart), took the 12-member jury and six alternates selected a day earlier through some emails that appear to depict the former PCA president as lacking much concern about food safety.
While fresh to the jury, most of the emails became public more than five years ago during an investigation by Congress of the 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak traced back to PCA peanut butters and paste. That outbreak caused more than 700 illnesses throughout the nation and is blamed for nine deaths.
Dasher told the jury that actions by defendants Stewart Parnell, Michael Parnell and Mary Wilkerson have affected lives across the United States. He pointed out the four locations from which PCA did business and told the jury the positions of the defendants within the PCA organization.
Dasher called Stewart Parnell, PCA owner as well as president, a “hands-on guy” who claimed that he traveled regularly to all of the locations, including the Blakely, GA, plant, which has been noted as the source of the Salmonella outbreak.
In February 2013, an indictment was unsealed charging former PCA executives with a total of 76 counts, all felonies, including allegations of fraud and conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and causing unbranded and adulterated peanut butter and paste to be placed in interstate commerce. One of those charged, Samuel Lightsey, the former PCA plant manager at Blakely, pleaded guilty before the case went to trial.
Dasher showed the jury an email from March 2007, more than a year before the deadly outbreak, in which a manager in the Blakely plant stated that microbiological test results were not going to be back before a shipment was ready to go out.
“Just ship it,” was Parnell’s response to the manager’s email, Dasher said.
The prosecutor told the jury about a process known as “pre-dipping,” which refers to taking multiple samples from the same product lot and then falsifying the lot numbers. PCA allegedly took four samples from lot 0828 and then claimed them to be lot 0830, 0832, 0836, etc.
Dasher also provided the jury with a copy of a contract of between Kellogg’s and PCA requiring that “all products produced at this facility are grown in the USA unless customers require peanuts that have been produced from a different origin.”
But the prosecutor said that evidence will show 69 percent of the peanut paste delivered to Kellogg’s by PCA was made from either Mexican paste or paste made from Argentine peanuts.
Dasher also introduced some additional emails he intends to use as evidence against the former PCA executives.
One email, from Grey Adams to David Voth (the company’s national sales manager), began with, “They [peanuts] need to be air hosed off because they’re covered in dust and rat crap.” Adams is Stewart Parnell’s daughter, who worked at PCA’s headquarters in Lynchburg, VA.
Dasher also presented an email in which Mary Wilkerson wrote, “We have a problem with Salmonella every other week if not every week.”
He finished up his opening statement by repeating the phrase used in multiple emails about contaminated PCA product: “Just ship it.”
Defense attorney Thomas J. Bondurant Jr., representing Stewart Parnell, began his opening statement by telling the jury about his client and the Parnell family’s long history in the peanut industry.
Bondurant addressed the “pre-dipping” issue but said there is neither a legal requirement for retesting for Salmonella nor any law against it.
Bondurant told the jury that the contract was not between Kellogg’s and PCA but was a contract of P.P. Sales and Kellogg’s. The defense attorney ended his opening statement by asking the jury to keep an open mind throughout the trial.
Edward Tolley, defense attorney for Michael Parnell, and Thomas Ledford, defense attorney for Mary Wilkerson, both chose to hold their opening statements until they present their cases.
The government’s first expert witness also took the stand on Friday. To explain to the jury how microbiological testing is conducted for Salmonella and other pathogens, the prosecution called Dr. Darlene Cowart, director of food safety and quality at Birdsong Peanuts.
The University of Georgia-trained biologist previously headed up a privately owned laboratory with multiple locations and now works for Birdsong, one of the state’s best-known peanut shelling companies.
Cowart’s testimony will continue at 8 a.m. on Monday at the C.B. King U.S. Courthouse in Albany.