A Georgia peanut plant manager testified Friday that his company had been shipping contaminated nuts with fake documents showing them to be salmonella-free before the plant was identified as the source of a nationwide outbreak that killed nine Americans and sickened more than 700.
"In my mind, I wasn't intentionally hurting anyone," Sammy Lightsey told jurors at the trial of his former boss, Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, and two others.
Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, are accused of shipping tainted products to customers and covering up lab tests showing they contained salmonella. Stewart Parnell and the Georgia plant's quality assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, are also charged with obstructing justice. Experts say it's the first time corporate officers and managers have gone to trial on federal charges in a food poisoning case.
Lightsey, who managed the plant from July 2008 until the company went bankrupt following the outbreak in 2009, pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in May after agreeing to testify for prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. He was the top manager at the peanut plant, reporting directly to Stewart Parnell.
Soon after taking the job, Lightsey said, he discovered that peanut paste was being shipped to Kellogg's for use in peanut butter crackers the same day they were produced, without waiting the 48 hours it takes to receive results of lab tests for salmonella and other contaminants.
Rather than wait, Lightsey said, the plant would ship paste with lab results that actually came from different batches tested a week earlier, certifying they were negative for salmonella.
Lightsey said he confronted Michael Parnell, who handled the contract for Kellogg, one of the company's biggest customers.
"I went to the office and called Mike Parnell and I told him we can't do this; it was illegal and it was wrong," Lightsey said. "He informed me it was set up before I got there and don't worry about Kellogg's, he can handle Kellogg's."
Lightsey said he didn't push the issue further. He didn't say if he ever discussed the fake lab results with Stewart Parnell.
Defense attorneys won't be able to cross-examine Lightsey until next week.
Lightsey testified that prosecutors agreed to cap his prison sentence at 6 years — compared to a possible 76-year sentence if he didn't take their plea deal. Judge W. Louis Sands told jurors to keep in mind that Lightsey "may have a reason to make a false statement."
The defense has already noted that it was Lightsey who initially lied to the Food and Drug Administration inspectors who arrived at the plant after it was linked to salmonella poisoning.
Two FDA investigators testified Lightsey first told them the plant had only one test showing salmonella, and that it had turned out to be a false positive. Five days later, he admitted that lab testing had confirmed salmonella three times during his six months as a manager. The FDA later found 12 positive tests in a span of two years.
The Georgia plant was shut down and Peanut Corp. went bankrupt, but by then the outbreak had prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 714 people in 46 states were infected and nine people died — three in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.