Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part account of a 2008-2009 nationwide food safety crisis.
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Explore this issueApril/May 2015
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Hugh Parnell Sr. founded Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), originally named Parnell’s Peanuts, in Gorman, Texas during the late 1970s. The company provided its products to bakeries and manufacturers of candy, ice cream, and snacks, and also directly to consumers. The company caught the eye of the FDA in 1990 when the agency found that PCA was distributing peanuts with unacceptable levels of aflatoxins—a potential risk to public health caused by mold that grows in nuts and seeds. Two years later, the American Candy Company sued PCA for lost inventory that included nuts because PCA falsely claimed that its product was free of aflatoxins.
In 2000, Hugh’s son, Stewart Parnell, who owned a peanut plant in Blakely, Ga., decided to purchase the Gorman facility and within three years of ownership, he successfully tripled PCA’s revenue. By 2005, Stewart Parnell was able to add facilities in Suffolk, Va. and Plainview, Texas. However, his success hit a roadblock in January 2006 when Nestlé completed an onsite audit of PCA’s Plainview plant, giving it a “Does Not Meet Standards” score on nearly all 40 inspection areas.
An Eyewitness in the Plainview Peanut Plant
Several months after it failed the audit, PCA hired Kenneth Kendrick to serve as its assistant plant manager at the Plainview plant.
“When I was working there, [PCA had] nothing that resembled a quality assurance program,” says Kendrick. “I came from a lab testing background in the meat industry. I thought there would be regular testing, like in the meat industry…”
Kendrick claims he immediately observed numerous problems in the plant, including rat infestations and roof leaks, both of which triggered his concern for feces in the product. According to Kendrick, “particularly with water leaking off a roof, bird feces can wash in and drip onto the peanuts.”
A second Nestlé audit was scheduled for July 2006, but Kendrick commented to his plant manager that there was no way Nestlé would certify PCA with all its issues. As a result, Danny Kilgore, operations manager from PCA’s facility in Georgia, flew out to the Plainview plant two days before Nestlé’s second audit to allegedly hide the problems.
“Kilgore, Parnell, and everyone else in the plant were frantically patching holes in the walls, hiding roof leaks, pumping water out of the basement, and cleaning out mice traps (so the pest control guy would have a lower count),” according to Kendrick. In addition, Kilgore had Kendrick rewrite the food safety and quality assurance policies as Kendrick recalls, “at the time, nobody at PCA knew any of the Salmonella standards as they applied to peanuts.”
PCA began recalling its products in January 2009, which were ingredients in more than 3,500 foods produced by numerous companies.
While the second audit resulted in notations of “Much Improvement,” the plant still did not pass Nestlé’s inspection. Kilgore suggested to Kendrick that, in lieu of a third audit, Nestlé might look at improvements made after the July 2006 audit and approve PCA as a supplier. According to Kendrick, Kilgore insinuated that “microwaving the test sponges used for monitoring dangerous pathogens might gain better results and if PCA gained Nestlé’s business, [Kendrick] might get a raise in pay.”
Nestlé never did business with PCA; however, Frito-Lay and Kellogg’s did purchase large amounts of peanuts from the company. These and other smaller companies decided to purchase products from PCA based upon inspections conducted by a third-party auditor that gave PCA the highest possible rating.
From an Eyewitness to a Whistleblower
By late 2006, Kendrick claims he sent numerous anonymous emails and letters to the Texas Department of State Health Services and to companies that purchased products from the Plainview plant, but he never received a response. Then, after only a few months on the job, Kendrick left his position with PCA because as he put it, “I knew it was a train wreck and something unethical and bad was about to happen.”
Three years later while working at an orthopedic implants facility, Kendrick learned of the widespread Salmonella outbreak that traced to PCA’s Georgia plant. He spent “hundreds of hours” trying to contact the media and federal food or health agencies to get attention placed on the Plainview plant. The only response he received was from the Chicago office of STOP Foodborne Illness, a non-profit food safety organization. Kendrick received a phone call from Donna Rosenbaum, the organization’s CEO at the time, and Nancy Donley, a food safety advocate who lost her own son to E. coli some years earlier.
The leaders at STOP listened to Kendrick’s story and his observations. They followed up by verifying his information with an anonymous employee from the Texas plant. STOP then offered to help by getting Kendrick in touch with the media and FDA investigators.
Kendrick soon appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America after The New York Times published an article about the peanut plant based on his descriptions. However, by these and other news outlets incorrectly calling Kendrick the “plant manager” as opposed to his real title of “assistant plant manager,” the media casted doubt on his motives, implying he was only coming forward to save himself since he was the so-called plant manager.
On a positive note, investigators from the FDA did set up a personal meeting with Kendrick to get his side of the story. Kendrick gave them copies of some emails he had sent to companies. He told of the lies that PCA’s owner, Stewart Parnell, was selling the public. According to Kendrick, Stewart Parnell knowingly made false statements about how the peanut plant engaged in testing all the time. “What Parnell was saying was just not true,” claims Kendrick. “Parnell would only do testing when a buyer requested one, and by ‘testing’ I mean that Parnell had an office worker simply change the dates on recent inspection sheets.”
Kendrick also revealed how PCA was shipping product between production plants in different states. According to Kendrick, peanut meal, a sawdust-like product from chopping nuts, sat for over a year in large material containers until a full truckload was gathered—for the sake of saving money—before being shipped to Georgia for processing into peanut butter. He also said that the manager ordered employees to sweep the year-long collection of dust and rat feces off the containers so that they didn’t look so bad upon arrival.
Kendrick even drew the FDA maps of the Plainview plant to show exactly where to find holes in the roof, evidence of the flooded basement, and where the dead rats could be found in a false ceiling. With this information, federal and state authorities found the evidence they needed to pressure PCA to shut down the Plainview plant.
The CDC was also able to link the facility to the multi-state Salmonella outbreak that sickened 714 consumers in 46 states and caused the deaths of nine people between 2008 and 2009. PCA began recalling its products in January 2009, which were ingredients in more than 3,500 foods produced by numerous companies.
On Feb. 13, 2009, PCA filed for bankruptcy. Four years later, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the following four PCA executives on 76 criminal charges related to adulterated and misbranded products that reached interstate commerce: Stewart Parnell, owner; Michael Parnell, peanut broker; Mary Wilkerson, former quality control manager; and Daniel Kilgore, former operations manager at the Blakely, Ga. facility. Though the Department of Justice never called Kendrick to testify against PCA, he was satisfied that Parnell was indeed found guilty.
After being terminated from his job at the orthopedic implants facility following a hospitalization for severe depression, Kendrick has not held a significant job in the six years since he gained the label of a “whistleblower.” However, he has assisted a national project to help protect future whistleblowers. Even though acting as a whistleblower negatively impacted his professional and personal life, Kendrick understands what he did was for a larger cause and that had he not spoken up, the guilty parties may have gotten away with their crimes.
Detwiler is the senior policy coordinator for food safety at STOP Foodborne Illness. He has over 20 years of involvement in food safety reform, including having served two terms as a USDA regulatory policy advisor on meat and poultry inspection. Detwiler teaches Regulatory Affairs of Food at Northeastern University where his is also a Doctoral Candidate in Law and Policy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Food Truth Movement
The Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign aims to protect and empower employees who speak out against waste, fraud, abuse, or violations of law along the food supply chain. Through its website, www.FoodWhistleblower.org, whistleblowers can find out what legal rights they have, get details on the relevant laws, and decide whether to request legal assistance. There’s also a list of tips for individuals considering blowing the whistle.—FQ&S