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Feds indict 4 over 2009 salmonella outbreak linked to Georgia peanut plant

Peanut Corp.jpg

The building of the now-closed Peanut Corporation of America plant is pictured in Blakely, Georgia on January 29, 2009. REUTERS/Matthew Bigg

A federal grand jury indicted four employees of a peanut company linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds.

The indictment was unsealed Wednesday in federal court in Georgia and charges four employees with Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America. The charges include conspiracy, wire fraud, obstruction of justice and others related to contaminated or misbranded food.

Named in the indictment were company owner Stewart Parnell, his brother and company vice president Michael Parnell, Georgia plant manager Samuel Lightsey and Georgia plant quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson.

The recall of Peanut Corp.'s peanut products was one of the largest in history. FDA inspectors found remarkably bad conditions inside Parnell's processing plant in Blakely, Ga., including mold and roaches.

The indictment accused the Parnells and Lightsey of conspiring to defraud customers and obtain money through false and fraudulent pretenses. Wilkerson was charged with obstruction of justice.

The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment until after a news conference later Thursday.

The indictment alleged the conspiracy lasted from about June 2003 through February 2009. The indictment said peanut products were shipped after it tested positive for salmonella, and the company failed to inform customers.

Stewart Parnell, who invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before Congress in February 2009, once directed employees to "turn them loose" after samples of peanuts had tested positive for salmonella and then were cleared in a second test, according to e-mails uncovered at the time by congressional investigators.

The indictment cited emails sent between defendants talking about the contamination in the product.

A federal judge in 2010 approved a $12 million insurance settlement for more than 100 salmonella victims.

Even President Barack Obama expressed concern at the height of the product recalls, noting that his daughter Sasha eats peanut butter for lunch as often as three times a week.

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