Page last updated at 22:22 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

US peanut boss refuses testimony

Stewart Parnell at the congressional hearing, 11 Feb
Stewart Parnell refused to answer questions about the outbreak

The owner of a US peanut company blamed for an outbreak of salmonella poisoning linked to several deaths has refused to testify at a congressional hearing.

Stewart Parnell, who owns the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), invoked his right not to incriminate himself when questioned by House lawmakers.

Displaying internal e-mails sent by Mr Parnell, lawmaker Henry Waxman accused him of caring about profit over safety.

At least eight deaths have been linked to the outbreak. PCA denies wrongdoing.

More than 1,800 products containing PCA peanut butter have been recalled as a result of the contamination, traced to the Georgia-based company's plant in Blakely.

Ohio health officials on Wednesday linked a ninth death to the strain of salmonella involved, although it was unclear whether peanut butter was directly involved. Some 600 have been made ill in the outbreak.

A criminal inquiry was launched last month. The FBI is also investigating.

'Costing money'

Mr Parnell was subpoenaed to appear before the House of Representatives subcommittee investigating the outbreak but declined to testify, citing his constitutional rights.

What [these e-mails] show is this company cared more about its financial bottom line than about the safety of its customers
Representative Henry Waxman

The panel presented internal e-mails obtained by investigators that showed Mr Parnell ordering products identified as tainted with salmonella to be shipped.

He was also quoted complaining that dealing with the contaminated products was "costing us huge $$$$".

Another e-mail said the firm's employees "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money".

California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman said: "What they show is this company cared more about its financial bottom line than about the safety of its customers."

Congressman Greg Walden at the congressional hearing, 11 Feb
Congressman Greg Walden invited Mr Parnell to sample recalled products

Oregon Republican Representative Greg Walden also criticised the firm, saying: "Lives were lost and people were sickened because they took a chance, I believe knowingly, with products that were contaminated."

Mr Walden held up a jar containing recalled products - wrapped in crime-scene tape - and asked whether Mr Parnell would be willing to eat the food inside.

The New York Times reported last week that sales of peanut butter - a national favourite - were down almost a quarter across the country following the scare.

Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said PCA knowingly sold contaminated nuts.

Some 600 people in 43 US states are reported to have fallen ill with the outbreak strain of salmonella typhimurium since September 2008. More than half of those affected were under 16 years old.

Symptoms of salmonella poisoning, which usually appear within 12 to 72 hours of eating contaminated food, include diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, headaches, stomach cramps and fever.

The symptoms can last for several days but most otherwise healthy people make a full recovery within a week.

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