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Peanut salmonella trial reveals America's food safety honor system is shaky

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Between 2008 and 2009, more than 700 individuals in the U.S. fell ill because of food poisoning that was linked to eating peanut-containing products. Of these patients, nine died and at least 23 percent were hospitalized. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) along with state officials eventually traced the salmonella outbreak to products sold by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).

The outbreak prompted the most extensive food recall in the U.S. affecting more than 300 companies and nearly 4,000 products that use PCA ingredients. It also drove down the sales of the peanut butter industry by almost 25 percent. The outbreak also led to the bankruptcy and closure of PCA. Its owners, however, continue to face the implications of the outbreak.

PCA owner Stewart Parnell and his brother Michael Parnell face prison time if proven that they have knowingly shipped tainted peanut products. On Friday, Sammy Lightsey, the company's former plant manager testified that PCA shipped contaminated nuts using fake documents that indicated the products are salmonella-free. Lightsey's testimony also revealed that America's food safety depends on an honor system.

Lightsey, who also face criminal charges following the incident but agreed to be a witness in the case in exchange for a lighter sentence, said that after he got his job as the peanut plant's top manager, he observed that the peanut paste the company was shipping to Kellog's were shipped the same day that these were produced despite that it takes 48 hours to receive the results of lab tests for contaminants such as salmonella.

Instead of waiting, Lightsey said that the plant would ship the paste along with lab results from different batches that were tested earlier, which certified that the products were free of salmonella. When Lightsey confronted Michael Parnell who handled Kellog's contract, he was told not to worry about it.

"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."

The Parnells defense lawyers said that salmonella tests aren't required by federal law, which is why for clients that did not ask for salmonella-free documentations such as the ones required by Kellogs, the company did not have to do the testing. The Food and Drug Administration said that due to lack of resources to thoroughly inspect consumable products, it relies widely on an honor system from companies. 

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