House committee holds salmonella hearings

By Jennifer Emert - bio | email

Washington D. C. (WALB) - An Ohio woman's death is blamed on Salmonella tainted peanut butter taking the death toll to nine as Peanut Corporation of America managers and the those responsible for catching the outbreak came before Congress to answers questions.

The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee ordered Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell to testify, but he refused to answer their questions.

For four hours committee members listened to testimony from the lab representative who performed tests on the samples from the Blakely plant to victim's families who asked Congress how could this outbreak be allowed to happen.

Representative Greg Walton of Oregon held a container of recalled items made with Peanut Corporation of America's products asking PCA's owner if he would be willing to try his luck.

"I just wonder would you be willing to take the lid off and eat any of these products now like the people on the panel ahead of you, their relatives, their loved ones did?" asked Walden.

Parnell: "Mr. Chairman and members of the committee on the advice of my council I respectfully decline to answer your question based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution."

That was the answer for all the questions committee members asked Parnell and Blakely plant manager Sam Lightsey.

Darlene Cowart of JLA testing company of Albany explained as early as 2006 Peanut Corporation of America contacted the Albany lab to help control Salmonella discovered in the plant.

She explained how long they'd been getting positive results and that she believes PCA dropped the lab after receiving several positive results:

"From January first 2007 to September 2008 we tested approximately a thousand samples of product from Peanut Corporation of America of these in 2007 six samples were confirmed positive for Salmonella and all the rest were negative in 2008 we issued a total of four confirmed Salmonella positive certificate of analysis."

Committee members pointed to e-mails detailing lab results for the same day in which JLA received a positive result and another lab, Deibel, got a negative result. E-mails from Stewart Parnell urged workers to ship tainted products because he was worried about lost sales.

Family members of those sickened questioned Congress about how this could continue.

"This was not an accident It sickens me to no end that a company and it's employees could knowingly allow a tainted product to go out the door into the nations food supply does no one have a conscious anymore?" said Peter Hurley, the father of a victim.

The committee questioned the FDA about the need for subpoena power to force companies to turn over their lab results, although the FDA continues to deny the need for the power. Committee members are now considering several proposals that would strengthen laws protecting food safety.

At the Georgia state capitol today, a new food safety measure passed its first key hurdle.

The Senate Ag Committee voted unanimously to require food makers to alert state inspectors within 24 hours if a plant's internal tests show contaminated products.