Published February 13, 2009
LYNCHBURG, Va – A little over a month ago, Stewart Parnell was telling friends and clients just how good things were in his peanut business. He was spending time with his grandchild, looking forward to some more hunting and getting his boat out on the water.
Today, the man forever associated with the deadly salmonella outbreak is more the recluse, staying close to the house he bought here more than 14 years ago, when it was still surrounded by pastures. Parnell is telling those same friends and clients not to call, not to visit, not to do anything that might link them to the firestorm he's facing.
In his hometown in central Virginia, Parnell is known as a respected businessman. But the image of a benevolent peanut tycoon contrasts markedly with what investigators said occurred inside the processing plants of Peanut Corp. of America. Worried about profits, they said, Parnell fired off jaw-dropping e-mails to employees amid reports that salmonella had been detected in his products: "Turn them loose."
Reconciling the Jekyll-and-Hyde tale of Stewart Parnell, 54, and his contaminated peanuts carries important consequences for food protection reforms already being considered in Washington. Was Parnell a hapless businessman whose mistakes revealed seams in the government's safety net? Or does the system require a more extensive overhaul to identify companies that might knowingly deliver tainted ingredients?
Those close to Parnell said he's not a monster, just a person who has made mistakes.
"I haven't condemned him yet," said Eddie Marks, who runs a Virginia storage company and has known Parnell for 15 years.
For nearly five minutes before being dismissed, Parnell listened Wednesday as U.S. lawmakers described him as greedy and uncaring, indifferent to the impact his beleaguered business has had on the lives of so many. He repeatedly invoked his constitutional right not to say anything that could be used against him.
Parnell isn't talking now, not to reporters or congressmen who pelted him with questions about whether his Georgia plant was responsible for 600 illnesses and nine deaths across the country. Nearly 200 food makers who used or sold Parnell's products are listed on a recall of more than 1,900 items, making this one of the nation's largest recalls.
His appearance before a House subcommittee was the first opportunity to put a face to the latest food contamination scare: a round, slightly swollen, seemingly sleepless face of a man fidgeting in his seat, or tapping his fingers on the desk before him, or folding his arms awkwardly, or jerking his head to the side as if he heard his name called.
"I'm assuming he will talk when the time is right," said his brother Michael of Midlothian, Va.
Texas health officials this week told him to shut his plant there and ordered a recall Thursday of all its products after salmonella was discovered, along with "dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers."
This is not the man Charles Pond knew when he sold him his Suffolk, Va., peanut business in 2001. Parnell leases Pond's building and makes monthly payments for equipment.
"He's been slow to pay on some of it, but other than that, we've never seen any problems like this," Pond said.
Parnell has had a long, successful run in the peanut business, starting with his father and two younger brothers in 1977. They took a struggling, $50,000-a-year peanut roasting operation and turned it into a $30 million business before selling in 1995. Parnell once boasted about the company on his Web site.
Parnell continued working as a consultant to the business after the family sold it, and in 2000 he left to buy his own peanut plant again in Texas. In 2001, he bought the Blakely, Ga., operation after teaming up with a financial backer, David Royster III of Shelby, N.C.
Pond said Royster supplied the money, Parnell supplied the experience for the Georgia and Virginia peanut businesses.
Royster did not returned repeated calls for comment over several days made to his office and home by The Associated Press.
Friends of Parnell said there is more to him than what the public has seen. He is a father to two grown daughters, a pilot of more than 30 years, an avid hunter, a reliable contributor to local charities, a man who has spent more than three decades in his business.
"He's an amazing person," said Nancy Weaver, a neighbor of Parnell's. Weaver called a reporter to defend Parnell, to say he's just being maligned and misunderstood. But she, like others close to him, declined to discuss him further when a reporter knocked on the door.
The public record portrays a different man, someone who repeatedly has faced problems in his business years before it became ground zero for the salmonella outbreak.
In 1990, federal inspectors found toxic mold in products produced in Parnell's peanut company in Virginia that forced a recall of the food, according to a 1992 lawsuit filed in Virginia. Parnell settled the case with two companies that had products contaminated.
In 2001, inspectors found peanuts may have been exposed to pesticides, and in 2006 Parnell's company hired a consultant to help resolve a salmonella problem at the Georgia plant.
Parnell is not a fly-by-night operator, said Eddie Marks, the Virginia businessman and Parnell client. Parnell's client list includes some of the nation's largest food companies — Kellogg, Frito-Lay, Jenny Craig, Sara Lee.
"I think you can look at his customer base and determine that he's been well-recognized," Marks said.
Michael Smith, purchasing manager for Stapleton-Spence Packing Co. in Gridley, Calif., has bought peanuts from Parnell for years and describes him as "one of the nicest guys in the world."
Smith said he recently sent Parnell an e-mail expressing support, and in less than five minutes Parnell responded.
"He said, 'I have one thing for you: Take care of yourself, your family and your business."