Criminal Investigation of Salmonella-Tainted Peanut Products Complete — DOJ Announces Charges Against Five Individuals and Reaches Out to Potential Victims

By: James W. Kraus

On Thursday, DOJ announced criminal charges against five individuals relating to the manufacture and distribution of salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products by the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).  The charges against the owner and president of the company, a food broker, and three individuals involved in the operation of the company’s Blakely, Georgia plant, include mail and wire fraud, the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce, and conspiracy.   Two of the individuals were also charged with obstruction of justice.

This case provides a sobering reminder to those involved in industries that don’t typically see criminal investigations that failure to implement and execute compliance programs can have dire consequences, and that deception in response to investigations will always make things worse.  The team bringing the case reflects a multi-agency approach that can be used in such circumstances.  Specifically, the case was investigated by the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations and the FBI.  With the filing of the charges, which include a 76 count indictment against four of the individuals, the case is now being prosecuted by trial attorneys of the Consumer Protection Branch of DOJ’s Civil Division and the Office of U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.

While there can be little doubt that the potential for injury and even death from contaminated food products had an impact on the decision to file criminal charges, the dishonesty reflected in the operations … as well as the response to the investigation, likely had a greater impact.

The charges are the culmination of an investigation that began after the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a national outbreak of salmonella to the PCA plant in Blakely as the likely source.  According to the government, the Blakely plant was a peanut roasting facility where PCA roasted raw peanuts and produced granulated peanuts, peanut butter, and peanut paste.  PCA shipped the products to customers that ranged in size from small, family-owned businesses to global, multibillion-dollar food companies.

The government alleges that the defendants defrauded PCA customers about the quality and purity of their peanut products and specifically misled PCA customers about the existence of food-borne pathogens by failing to notify the customers of contamination  even when laboratory testing revealed the presence of salmonella in peanut products shipped from the Blakely plant.  The government also claims that four of the defendants carried out a scheme to fabricate certificates of analysis (COAs) accompanying various shipments of peanut products.   COAs are documents that summarize laboratory results, including results concerning the presence or absence of pathogens.

While there can be little doubt that the potential for injury and even death from contaminated food products had an impact on the decision to file criminal charges, the dishonesty reflected in the operations described above, as well as the response to the investigation, likely had a greater impact.  Specifically, according to the government, after the salmonella outbreak that gave rise to this investigation, FDA inspectors visited the plant several times in January 2009.   The indictment against four of the individuals alleges that the inspectors asked specific questions about the plant, its operations, and its history, and, in several instances, three of the defendants gave untrue or misleading answers to these questions.

DOJ also provided information to potential victims, announcing that “Individuals who feel that they may have been affected by or have become ill from tainted PCA products, and businesses that purchased products that were recalled as a result of the outbreak, should visit the following website for further details:

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