Peanut butter killed his mom; now son watches company brass stand trial

Story highlights

Nine people died, more than 700 were sickened in a 2008 salmonella outbreak

Health officials traced the outbreak to peanut butter produced in south Georgia

Company executives are now on trial, accused of deliberately shipping tainted food

Government says the company covered up positive tests for salmonella

Albany, Georgia CNN  — 

It was in a bland, windowless third-floor courtroom here that Jeff Almer first locked eyes with the man he holds responsible for his mother’s death.

Shirley Mae Almer, 72, survived lung cancer and a brain tumor. But not peanut butter.

One of America’s favorite foods – tainted with salmonella – killed her, just four days before Christmas in 2008.

Her grief-stricken son opened the presents she’d left for him under the tree: a shirt and a GPS device. He’s thankful now that he can’t quite remember which shirt it was. He doesn’t want to be reminded.

Shirley Mae Almer survived cancer and a brain tumor. But tainted peanut butter killed her.

His mother’s death spurred Almer to become a public face for the fight for tougher food safety regulations. Now, he awaits justice.

The salmonella-laced product Shirley Almer consumed was traced back to peanuts produced at Peanut Corp. of America, a plant in the “Peanut Proud” town of Blakely, Georgia.

Stewart Parnell, the man who owned and ran Peanut Corp., is facing prosecution in an unprecedented criminal trial in Albany, about an hour’s drive from the now boarded-up plant.

It felt surreal for Almer to gaze into Parnell’s eyes as the trial began in early August. He is sure in his heart that Parnell deliberately ordered the shipment of peanut butter and paste he knew carried the potentially deadly bacteria.

The Peanut Corp. salmonella outbreak has already led to new federal food safety regulations. It’s a big reason why Americans should feel safer about tainted food being pulled off grocery shelves more quickly, like the salmonella contaminated nut butters that were recalled this week.

Now, the trial has the potential to make the outbreak the most influential food-borne illness incident in America. Never before has a jury heard a criminal case in which a corporate chief faced federal criminal charges for knowingly shipping out food containing salmonella. No matter the outcome of the trial, about to enter a fifth week, it is sure to make a lasting impact on how criminal statutes are applied to food safety, advocates say.

Almer recently sat on one of several hard wooden benches at the back of the courtroom. He could see the 12-member jury and six alternates seated on the right side of the court. Even with the air conditioning on, some fanned themselves to stay cool.

On the other side, he had a clear view of Parnell and his younger brother Michael Parnell, who are on trial together after being indicted on 76 counts, among them conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead. The fraud and conspiracy charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Stewart Parnell also faces obstruction of justice charges, as does former plant quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson, who sat with her attorney next to Michael Parnell.

The government says the Parnell brothers and Wilkerson put profit before safety. They knew about the salmonella in their products, prosecutors say, and covered up lab results that tested positive for the bacteria.

In all, nine people died nationwide; another 714 people in 46 states were sickened, some critically. It was the deadliest outbreak of its kind in recent years.

The prosecution’s blistering opening statement contained three now-infamous words Parnell penned in a March 2007 email to a plant manager about contaminated products: “Just ship it.”

Defense attorneys argue that Parnell did not know about mismanagement at the plant, that he was the fall guy for other employees’ wrongdoing.

But Almer doesn’t see it that way.

“This man had an opportunity to come clean, but I’ve never seen anything but tap dancing around the issue,” Almer said. He’d watched Parnell take the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before a congressional committee a few weeks after federal food inspectors raided the plant.

Almer longs for the end of the trial. Yet, he said, he and his brothers and sisters needed it so they could go on with their lives. It seemed like everything came undone after their mom died. She was the glue of the family, the one with “sisu,” they like to say – the Finnish word for spunk and fortitude.

People think salmonella is something that gives you a stomachache, Almer said. “It killed my mother.”

As he settled into his seat at the trial, his girlfriend by his side, he knew it would be tough to hear it all play out again, to relive the tragedy that struck his family in Minnesota and the nightmare winter for all of America when a popular paste turned national foe.

Peanuts, pride and a black eye

Shirley Mae Almer contracted a urinary tract infection around Thanksgiving 2008 and checked into the Good Samaritan, a short-term care facility in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Shirley Mae Almer (center) with her children. Jeff Almer (dark blue shirt) became a food safety advocate.

Her daughter Ginger Lorentz came to visit Almer and made her toast slathered with peanut butter from the facility’s kitchen.

Almer fell ill with stomach cramps and diarrhea. Everything spiraled downward from there. Instead of releasing her as planned on the Monday before Christmas, doctors gave her just a few hours to live.

Jeff Almer arrived at his mother’s bedside just in time to say goodbye. He wouldn’t learn the cause of her illness until many days after she was buried. She had been infected by salmonella.

The microscopic rod-shaped bacteria is most commonly associated with meat, poultry, eggs and raw milk – products from animals that are carriers of the bacteria. It can also be found on fruits and vegetables and in ingredients made from them.

Salmonella is America’s most common cause of food-borne illness and sickens up to 1.4 million people each year. The key to destroying it is to wash raw foods thoroughly or cook other foods at high enough temperatures to kill the bacteria. In the case of raw peanuts, salmonella is destroyed by roasting at 350 degrees.

Once ingested, salmonella can take many days to manifest in a person’s body. Most people are able to fight it off, but it can turn into a killer, especially in those who are vulnerable: the very young, the old and the frail. That was the case with Shirley Almer.

“My mother was trying to gain her balance, and their product pushed her over the edge,” Jeff Almer said. “They stole that from us.”

About two weeks after Shirley Almer’s death, health officials traced the source of the salmonella back to peanut butter produced at the Peanut Corp. plant. They descended on Blakely, as did the media.

Longtime employees told reporters they wilted under the pressure to produce for Stewart Parnell. The Lynchburg, Virginia, man, they said, bought the plant in 2001 in order to profit from an iconic industry; Georgia is the nation’s top peanut producer.

Employees described a filthy facility where Parnell increased production manifold and enticed food giants like Kellogg Co. and Sara Lee to buy from Peanut Corp.

The shuttered Peanut Corp. of America plant haunts the town of Blakely, Georgia.

Annual sales jumped 66%, from $15 million in 2005 to $25 million in 2008, the last full year Peanut Corp. was in production, according to business researchers Dun & Bradstreet.

Federal inspectors found roaches, rats, mold, dirt, bird droppings and accumulated grease in the plant when they raided it in January 2009. They also found a leaky roof.

Salmonella thrives in the intestines of birds. And the presence of water in what is supposed to be a dry processing facility for peanuts is like adding gasoline to fire for salmonella, say food safety experts. Inspectors also found that the peanut roasting temperatures were not always hot enough to kill salmonella.

Health officials discovered similarly poor conditions at Peanut Corp.’s other plant in Plainview, Texas, and both facilities were shuttered. The company later filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The shell of the building in Georgia still sits on Highway 62, a few miles from the center of Blakely. It’s like a ghost haunting the town.

Jeff Almer drove by the place that produced the peanut butter his mother so loved. The signs are overgrown with moss and weeds. It’s hard to even imagine it as a thriving peanut factory.

The economy depends on peanuts in Blakely, Georgia, but a 2008 salmonella outbreak gave the town a black eye.

Residents of Blakely said they don’t like talking about what happened there. People lost jobs, and peanut farmers worried that the salmonella outbreak had scared Americans away from peanuts.

But peanuts have held their own in Georgia, which produces half the nation’s crop. “Peanut Proud,” say the banners that flutter from light posts around the central square. A 1954 monument in front of the courthouse praises peanuts for bringing prosperity to Early County. And during harvest, the air around the fields thick with peanut crops smells like a freshly opened jar of the creamy stuff.

Still, Blakely hasn’t shaken off the tragedy that forever linked its name with suffering and death.

“It was a huge black eye for our community,” said Anthony Howard, a local bank executive who became mayor in 2011, two years after the scandal. “How do you get over something like that? I’m surprised the Parnell brothers didn’t plead out.”

Howard said the Parnell brothers tried to sell the property but no one wanted to touch it. One resident told him the town should just tear the plant down.

Almer’s girlfriend took a series of pictures of him in front of the place. He made certain salutes, signs and expressions that he said were too lewd to print.

It was almost cathartic to stand there. It was something else he needed to do.

‘Turn them loose’

“Exciting day, right?” joked Stewart Parnell’s defense attorney, Tom Bondurant, after court adjourned one day in the third week of the trial.

The prosecution’s strategy involved so many documents that on some days, like this one, the proceedings got downright tedious.

Prosecutor Patrick Hearn had shown the jury document after document: shipping orders from Peanut Corp. to its clients, quality assurance reports, email exchanges describing plant problems, and bacteria test results from J. Leek and Associates and Deibel Labs, two facilities the plant used to test products.

No one in America expected to get sick from eating a pantry staple like peanut butter.

Hearn argued the documents showed that Peanut Corp. often shipped products before testing for salmonella was completed. Other times, Hearn said, Peanut Corp. misled clients like Kellogg on bacteria testing results or covered up positive salmonella tests.

Kellogg recalled its peanut butter products once the salmonella was traced to Peanut Corp. and later, Kellogg President David Mackay testified before Congress that the company was not aware of health problems at Peanut Corp.

In 2010, Kellogg and Peanut Corp. paid out a $12 million settlement in a class action lawsuit brought by salmonella victims.

Hearn posed questions about Kellogg and other clients to Samuel Lightsey, a former plant manager who was initially named in the federal indictment with another manager, Danny Kilgore.

Kilgore and Lightsey both pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government in exchange for leniency.

Kilgore managed the Blakely plant from 2002 to 2008. He was facing 29 felony counts, which together carried up to 304 years in prison and more than $7 million in fines. In exchange for his cooperation, his term will be capped at 12 years and could be less.

He was a star witness at the trial in the past week and was key in confirming Lightsey’s previous testimony.

Lightsey told the jury he worked as a quality control manager for 17 years in two other peanut plants before starting at Parnell’s operation in July 2008. One of those jobs was next door at Universal Blanchers, another peanut processor.

Within days of his arrival at Peanut Corp., Lightsey testified, he came across test results for the company’s products. It was the first time he’d seen a salmonella positive result.

“I’d never had one before,” he said on the stand. “The biggest concern I had is that some of the product had already shipped. I was scared to death.”

He said he emailed a memo that detailed the problematic results to Stewart Parnell and other company officials. In his mind, he said, Peanut Corp. should have immediately stopped production and notified its customers.

Instead, documents show that Peanut Corp. ordered a second test and when that came back negative for salmonella, Parnell told Lightsey in an email to “turn them loose.” But Lightsey refused to obey until Parnell showed up at the plant and told him he was making an executive decision.

In other cases, Lightsey said, Peanut Corp. used test samples from a production lot different than the one being shipped to cover up positive salmonella tests.

Parnell’s lawyer, Bondurant, cast doubt on Lightsey’s testimony and framed him as a man who would say anything to get his jail time reduced. Lightsey faced 30 years before he struck a deal with the government. Now he can get no more than six.

Bondurant questioned how Peanut Corp. could have managed to keep a food giant like Kellogg in the dark and noted that in three audits before the salmonella outbreak the plant met Kellogg’s specifications.

The defense showed the jury some of the same emails the prosecution used against Parnell and argued that they had been taken out of context. One showed a response from Parnell that asked for information so that he could “tell the truth.”

But the defense arguments didn’t sway Almer and other victims’ family members watching the trial from afar.

“I know the trial hasn’t even finished, but my gosh, I have seen so much evidence,” Almer said. “I don’t know how anyone can not get (the company’s) intent in what occurred.”

Progress but still hoping for justice

Besides the class action settlement, two big things came of the Peanut Corp. salmonella outbreak.

People like Almer, who had never paid attention to food safety, joined a national campaign to strengthen food regulations. He traveled the nation as an advocate, trying to persuade citizens and lawmakers of the need to pass tougher legislation.

“We took it upon ourselves to make laws stronger,” he said.

The Food and Drug Administration estimates that every year, 48 million people – one out of six – suffer from food-borne illnesses. More than 100,000 people are hospitalized and about 3,000 die from infections the federal government says are largely preventable.

Yet food companies are still not required to test their products for safety.

Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety lawyer who represented victims of the Peanut Corp. salmonella outbreak, said all food facilities should be testing products.

“Scientifically based random testing gives you an assurance that you have a plan that your product is not adulterated,” he said. “It’s good business practice and smart for food safety.”

Recalls of tainted products used to be voluntary, like the one this week announced by nSpired Natural Foods Inc.

The company recalled several lots of peanut, almond and other nut butters, fearing salmonella contamination. The affected products include Arrowhead Mills peanut butters, MaraNatha almond butters and peanut butters and specific private label nut butters sold under the Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Kroger and Safeway brands.

But in early 2011, as a result of the campaign launched in the aftermath of the Peanut Corp. tragedy, President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which the FDA calls the most sweeping reform in food safety laws in 70 years.

For the first time, the law took aim at preventing food-borne illnesses rather than just responding to contamination that had already occurred. The new law gave the FDA the power to suspend a facility’s ability to sell food in American markets and detain food that may be contaminated.

The problem, say food safety advocates, is there is not yet adequate funding for the FDA to fully enforce the law. The FDA declined to comment.

Ciff Tousignant was one of nine people who died in a 2008-2009 salmonella outbreak from peanut butter.

The new law requires food companies to report salmonella positive results to the FDA, after which a plant would be subject to federal inspection.

Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, said the 2008-09 outbreak was linked to a single manufacturer and not a reflection of the peanut industry as a whole.

“Food safety,” he said, “is the U.S. peanut industry’s highest priority.”

Even before that outbreak, Archer said, the industry had adopted the FDA’s voluntary code of good manufacturing practices. That includes operating procedures recommended specifically for peanut processors and a mandatory “kill step” to eliminate microbiological contamination, like roasting at high enough temperatures.

Had the new laws been fully in place in 2008, attorney Marler believes, Peanut Corp.’s salmonella-tainted peanut butter would have been caught much earlier. And, maybe, people like Shirley Almer would still be alive.

Over the last few years, the Justice Department has brought several civil cases against food companies.

It has also brought criminal charges against companies like Iowa-based Quality Egg for a 2010 salmonella outbreak that led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs. Executives were charged with bribery of a public official, intent to defraud and introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. They pleaded guilty in June but have not yet been sentenced.

The Peanut Corp. criminal case is the first one to go to trial.

All these cases, Marler said, send a strong message to the more than 171,000 registered food facilities in the United States to take their safety procedures seriously.

Lou Tousignant, whose father died in the Peanut Corp. outbreak, said criminal trials such as the one in Albany will go a long way toward deterrence. Clifford Tousignant lived through the Korean war, diabetes and two amputations. But at 78, he succumbed to a peanut butter sandwich.

“If Stewart Parnell is convicted and does jail time, it might make someone else think twice,” said Lou Tousignant. “He played Russian roulette with his products. How can you defend that?”

For Jeff Almer, the passage of the 2011 federal food safety act was one solace he could take from “a dirty mess.” His advocacy helped him cope with his loss and outrage. Now, he hopes, the trial will allow him to move forward.

Almer is returning to the Albany courtroom next week. He will sit with his sister by his side and face Parnell again. Last time Almer was there, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of holding open the door to the men’s bathroom for Parnell and his lawyer. Almer felt certain Parnell knew who he was.

But Almer wasn’t interested in speaking with the man he holds responsible for his mother’s death. Almer can’t forgive Parnell, he said, because the man has not asked for forgiveness.

But he said he hopes Parnell never suffers from dementia in old age. He wants him to always remember what Almer believes the company owner’s actions did to innocent people.

Almer said he has only one question for Parnell: “Was the greed worth it?”

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