WASHINGTON (AP) – Salmonella problems were so common at a Georgia peanut plant that the company’s owner seemingly shrugged them off in e-mails.

“I go thru this about once a week. … I will hold my breath ………. again,” Peanut Corp. of America president Stewart Parnell wrote last June.

The e-mail was in response to information from an employee about a positive test for the bacteria that may have killed nine and sickened 600 people in an outbreak traced to the company’s Blakely, Ga., plant.

The document was among several released by House investigators on Wednesday contradicting what little the company has said publicly about problems dating to 2006 at its plant.

Parnell’s Oct. 6, 2008 e-mail to his Georgia plant manager Sammy Lightsey detailing a different positive test for salmonella in 441 cases of peanut granules, some of which had already been shipped out, concentrated on money, not safety.

“We need to discuss this … the time lapse, besides the cost is costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice,” Parnell wrote. “We need to protect our self and the problem is that the tests absolutely give us no protection, just an indication at best.”

One set of documents show Peanut Corp. issued a “certificate of analysis” last June for a sample of peanut products, assuring that the peanuts were free of salmonella. However, that batch of nuts got one positive test for salmonella from one lab and a negative finding from another.

Soon after that, Peanut Corp. stopped using the positive-testing lab for regular checks, saying they didn’t like the lab’s results, according to Darlene Cowart of JLA USA testing service, the Albany, Ga., lab dumped by Parnell’s company.

When the recall was announced in January, the company issued a statement quoting Parnell saying: “We are taking these actions with the safety of our consumers as our first priority.”

Less than a week later, in a Jan. 19 e-mail to federal officials, Parnell said his firm understood about not using some products, but added that company officials “desperately at least need to turn the Raw Peanuts on our floor into money.”

Cornell University food safety professor Joseph Hotchkiss read through the released documents and said what he saw “might be interpreted as a reckless disregard for the health of the consuming public.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Hotchkiss said the documents show “an abundant concern for PCA (Peanut Corp. of America), but little regard for the risk to the health and well being of the people who had enough faith in the food supply to consume PCA’s products.”

At a House hearing, Parnell and Lightsey refused to testify, citing their constitutional right against self incrimination. They did not respond to reporters’ questions as they left hearing.

In October, JLA USA lab manager Michelle Pronto contacted Lightsey, the Peanut Corp. plant manager, about another lab’s tests finding salmonella in tests from the Blakely plant.

“He paused, said ‘Uh-Oh’ or something to that effect and then told me he had released the product for shipping,” Pronto wrote in a letter to the House committee. Pronto said Lightsey told her the tainted product was “headed to Utah and rather than getting it back, he would have the product destroyed somewhere out West.”

On Jan. 12, 2009, after Peanut Corp. came under scrutiny by state and federal officials, Parnell wrote employees reminding them that products are sampled hourly and tested and “… we have never found any salmonella at all.”

Yet, in a Sept. 29, 2008 e-mail, Lightsey told Parnell that a Peanut Corp. product had tested positive for salmonella.

On June 2, 2008, another batch of nuts tested positive for the bacteria. “This lot is presumptive SALMONELLA!!!!,” wrote plant worker Mary Wilkerson.

Parnell responded: “thanks Mary, I go thru this about once a week … I will hold my breath ………. again …”


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