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Families of peanut poisoning victims urge Justice to file charges

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Relatives of people killed or sickened by peanut salmonella poisoning in 2008 and 2009 today urged the Justice Department to file criminal charges against Stewart Parnell, owner of the Peanut Corporation of America, the source of the tainted peanuts and peanut products.

At a news conference at the American University law school, the relatives described the victims’ pain that traveled from the stomach to other parts of their bodies as the illness advanced. Nine people died and 691 people in 46 states were sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The Justice Department and other federal agencies are investigating whether Parnell broke federal law. Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who represents the victims, said that the most likely charge against Parnell is that he shipped adulterated products, which would be a violation of interstate commerce. Marler said that if Parnell “knowingly” shipped tainted peanut products he could be charged with a felony, but that if he did not know the product was adulterated, the charge would be a misdemeanor.

Marler and Jeff Almer, a Savage, Minn., resident whose mother died from salmonella poisoning, said they met with Justice Department officials this morning to discuss the status of the case. Marler said he is confident that the agency is moving forward with the investigation, but said the lengthy process has taken a toll on his clients. Almer said the meeting “went better than anticipated,” and that he believes Justice Department officials “want to get it right.”

But Larry Andrews of Portland, Ore., whose wife, Karen, became ill after eating a peanut candy bar, said, “We are disappointed in our system of justice. If there was ever a case that cried out prosecution, this is it.”

The penalty for “knowingly” shipping adulterated products in interstate commerce is three years in prison. But Gabrielle Meunier of Burlington, Vt., who son was sickened by tainted peanut products and said still has health problems from it, noted that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has introduced a bill to lengthen the term to 10 years.

Parnell appeared before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in 2009, but refused to testify, citing the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

Marler rose to prominence representing victims of E coli contamination at Seattle Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993.

The news conference took place on the sidelines of an American University law school conference on whistleblower protections in the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Several of the victims lobbied hard for passage of that bill.