- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

Clifford Tousignant survived the Korean War and received three Purple Heart medals for his service. Shirley Almer was a two-time cancer survivor, beating two forms of the disease, in her lung and brain. Both are now dead from eating peanut butter.

The recent salmonella epidemic that killed eight people and caused more than 500 to become sick was the result of willful negligence on the part of the Peanut Corp. of America (PCA), according to a House panel that held a congressional hearing on the outbreak Wednesday.

“The documents obtained by the subcommittee are disturbing,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, said of several e-mails written by PCA President Stewart Parnell that were subpoenaed. “They seem to show a company that was more concerned with its bottom line than the safety of its customers.”

Angry lawmakers, after hearing testimony from families of victims, had several questions for Mr. Parnell - including a challenge from Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, to eat some peanut butter made with PCA peanuts - but the executive refused to answer them.

“Mister chairman and members of this committee, on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your question based on the protection afforded to me by the U.S. Constitution,” Mr. Parnell repeatedly told the panel.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration started investigating the PCA plant in Blakely, Ga., as the source of the outbreak. While a private firm hired by the company had found salmonella as early as 2007, those results were not shared with the FDA. The government’s eventual discovery led to nationwide recalls of more than 1,900 products made by more than 50 companies.

Members of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations cited evidence they said shows Mr. Parnell and his colleagues knowingly sent contaminated peanuts into the marketplace. In one e-mail, Mr. Parnell complained that private salmonella tests - the company tested positive a dozen times between 2007 and 2008 - were “costing us huge $$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice.”

Several Democrats on the panel blamed lax oversight by the FDA under the Bush administration. There was, however, bipartisan agreement that the agency needs more funding and more authority when it comes to ordering recalls.

The Justice Department is investigating PCA for possible criminal charges.

“Justice will catch up to you, and you will pay,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican.

Several lawmakers made it a point to note that Mr. Parnell did not sit through the testimony given by the sons of Mr. Tousignant and Mrs. Almer, or the father of a three-year-old who became infected but was treated in time.

“We can no longer pick up the phone and ask him what game he is watching,” Lou Tousignant said. “My father was a good man. He fought for his country. He died because he ate peanut butter.”

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