Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part account of a 2008-2009 nationwide food safety crisis.
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Explore this issueJune/July 2015
In 2009, Jeff Almer sent a Mother’s Day card to a man named Stewart Parnell. Before he sent the card, however, Jeff checked with his attorney. The lawyer responded “Well, personally, I wouldn’t do it, but I’m not the one who lost his mom, so—what the hell—go for it.”
Shirley Mae Almer had long gained assistance from her son Jeff, along with his two brothers and two sisters. After their father’s death in 1990, the siblings helped as much as they could when their mother took over running the family business—a bowling alley in Minnesota. They also helped their mother through her successful battles with lung cancer and a brain tumor.
Then, in 2008, Shirley contracted a urinary tract infection. At age 72, her immune system was not strong enough to handle this new challenge and she was checked into a short-term care facility. The family’s plan to bring Shirley home for Christmas was halted by doctors. The family was instead called in to gather by her bedside to say goodbye. She died by causes related to a Salmonella infection.
Shirley’s death from Salmonella caught everyone by surprise, even her doctors. Investigators would eventually learn that Shirley ate toast with peanut butter while trying to regain her health for the holidays. This finding triggered a series of discoveries ultimately connecting her infection to adulterated peanuts from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).
The Effects of Outbreak
The 2008-2009 PCA Salmonella in peanut product outbreak involved the recall of over 3,500 different types of products from more than 200 different companies. The outbreak caused over 700 illnesses in 46 states and killed nine people, including Shirley Mae Almer.
Investigators found Salmonella in PCA’s processing environment, indicating inadequate sanitation controls. They found that PCA’s peanut roasting process had not been validated for its effectiveness as a control measure or kill stop for biological hazards, such as Salmonella. At the time, hundreds of companies used PCA’s peanut ingredients in their products without an additional kill step.
Salmonella is one of the most common foodborne pathogens and among the most common causes of bacterial foodborne illness. An infection can cause diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, vomiting, bloodstream infections, reactive arthritis, and death. Symptoms generally appear 12 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food.
The federal government filed criminal charges related to adulterated and misbranded products to reach interstate commerce, taking the following PCA executives to trial:
- Stewart Parnell, owner,
- Michael Parnell, peanut broker, and
- Mary Wilkerson, former quality control manager.
Daniel Kilgore and Samuel Lightsey, both of which worked at the Blakely, Ga. plant, took plea deals and cooperated with prosecutors.
Viewing the Courtroom Proceedings
Jeff Almer has a unique perspective of the American legal system, having witnessed the process as the family member of a victim and through his collaboration with the prosecution team in advance and throughout the PCA trial. The two lead investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice in D.C. and the lead prosecutor from Albany, Ga., gave him a personal call when they handed down the 76 indictments for the PCA executives. Almer felt obligated to attend as much of the trial as he could, having attended nine days of the trial in July and August 2014. He was also present when the verdicts came in on Sept. 19, 2014.
During an exclusive interview, Almer characterized the in-court tactics of Stewart Parnell’s lead attorney, Thomas Bondurant, Jr., as that of playing the “government conspiracy game” as Bondurant claimed that the feds tried to “make an example of the little guy because it is easier than going after Kellogg’s or the big companies,” according to Almer. He also adds that Parnell’s team insinuated that “the government was using Parnell to get more funding for the FDA.