Peanut Plant Manager Admits Faking Tests Before Deadly Salmonella Outbreak, Flaws in ‘Honor’ System

A peanut plant manager from Georgia told jurors in the case against his former employer, Peanut Corporation of America, that his company had been shipping contaminated nuts with fake documents showing them to be salmonella-free before the plant was identified as the source of a nationwide outbreak that killed nine Americans and sickened more than 700.

According to CTV News, Sammy Lightsey, the peanut plant manager testifying against the company, said,

“In my mind, I wasn’t intentionally hurting anyone.”

Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, are accused of shipping tainted products to customers and covering up lab tests showing they contained salmonella. Lightsey, who is a top witness in the case against Parnell, managed the peanut plant from July 2008 until the company went bankrupt following the deadly salmonella outbreak in 2009. Lightsey plead guilty to seven criminal counts following the incident but agreed to testify in the Parnell case for a lighter sentence. Lightsey was the top manager at the peanut plant, reporting directly to Stewart Parnell.

The testimony from Lightsey sheds light on the issues surrounding the “honor” system that companies rely on for food safety. Lightsey went so far as to say that Parnell knew about the potential issues but did nothing about them stating:

“I went to the office and called Mike Parnell and I told him we can’t do this; it was illegal and it was wrong. He informed me it was set up before I got there and don’t worry about Kellogg’s, he can handle Kellogg’s.”

According to News Record, the defense lawyers for the Parnell brothers notes that salmonella tests aren’t even required by federal law. For many consumers this may come as a complete shock. In fact, the Parnell brothers aren’t even on trial for murder. They are on trial for defrauding their customers, such as Kellogg’s, who require all shipments to be tested as salmonella-free. Shockingly, Kellogg’s was one of the few Peanut Corporation of America customers who required such documentation. Samuel Lightsey noted,

“If they didn’t require it, it did not get tested.”

If the company purchasing the peanut products didn’t require the salmonella-free documentation, the company simply did not do the testing to ensure they could not be sued in instances such as this.The only reason the Parnell brothers are being charged and brought to trial criminally is for defrauding their customers that required the salmonella-free testing since the company knowingly sold those customers salmonella-tainted product.

In fact, Food and Drug Administration investigators ultimately discovered that lab tests had showed contamination in the plant’s chopped nuts, peanut butter or peanut paste 12 times during the two years before the outbreak. FDA inspector Janet Gray walked the jury through documents showing at least eight of those salmonella-tainted lots were shipped to customers anyway. This is where the defrauding of their customers took place.

The Peanut Corporation of America case is bringing food safety issues back to the forefront by allowing consumers a glimpse of the insufficient oversight of food products. The FDA says they lack the resources to thoroughly inspect all consumable items, so they rely largely on goodwill and the honor system from companies. However, companies have been known to cut corners to cut costs. This leads to foodborne illness outbreaks such as salmonella across the US.

Did you know that large food corporations were not required to test food products for contaminates such as salmonella before selling them to consumers? What do you think of the food safety “honor” system?