LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Two years after Peanut Corp. of America was blamed for a nationwide salmonella outbreak, the company's former president would like to rebuild his reputation and his career.
However, Lynchburg resident Stewart Parnell feels his hands are tied.
Occasionally, relatives or lawyers of people who suffered from salmonella publicly blame Parnell and call for his arrest. His lawyers advise against telling his side of the story and risking misunderstanding.
For more than a year, they have not heard whether the federal government still might charge him.
"I don't know whether there's an investigation going on or anything," Parnell said. "I sure wish they would come on and put this thing to bed."
His attorney Bill Gust said Parnell wrongfully lost his reputation because politicians and salmonella victims wanted someone to blame, and lawyers wanted someone to sue.
"Stewart was simply grist for the political mill," he said. " Stewart has been vilified as the source of all of their family suffering. Frankly, I think that's unfair."
Bill Marler, a lawyer who led numerous salmonella victims in suits against PCA, favors punishment for Parnell.
He also supports the food safety bill signed into law by President Obama this month. The law had wide support in part because of PCA, he said.
"The PCA outbreak was so large and so outrageous that it gave some impetus for business and consumers to sort of stick together on it," Marler said.
Two years ago Wednesday the Food and Drug Administration said that it had found salmonella in an open container of peanut butter made by PCA.
The FDA descended upon PCA's factory in Blakely, Ga., where it found some traces of salmonella. Federal investigators raided Parnell's home office on Wiggington Road just outside Lynchburg for a criminal investigation.
Soon, thousands of products, ranging from pet food to Easter candy, were pulled from store shelves because they contained PCA ingredients.
Parnell took center stage in the investigation during a congressional committee hearing in February 2009. House representatives accused him of purposefully selling salmonella-tainted peanuts and dared him to eat food with PCA ingredients.
They quoted e-mails in which Parnell authorized shipping peanut products that had once tested positive for salmonella but were found clean in a second test, sometimes in a different lab.
Parnell refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment rights to not testify against himself.
Gust said that the e-mails read by Congress in the hearing were quoted out of context to pin blame to Parnell.
The e-mails were part of a discussion about "finding a more skilled lab" and dealing with potentially false test results, Gust said.
After some of PCA's product tested positive for salmonella, the company's outsourced lab requested samples for more tests. Lab officials told the company they may have accidentally contaminated the originals, Gust said.
Parnell only approved product for sale after new tests came back negative.
"There is absolutely no reason in the world that he would have knowingly engaged in any form of misbehavior," Gust said.
The congressional hearing seemed to be motivated by politics rather than food safety, Gust said. "What these guys wanted to showcase was all these reasons why we need a bigger budget for the FDA."
Meanwhile, a bigger budget for the FDA was one thing Marler wanted. He attended the hearing with some of his clients, who testified about salmonella poisoning.
Later that year, the House of Representatives approved a bill to expand the FDA's powers and budget. "I think that the PCA outbreak was that last outbreak that pushed the House into voting on that bill," Marler said.
The bill lets the FDA conduct more inspections and force recalls of infected products, Marler said.
Now that the bill has passed the Senate and the president's desk, Marler wants the new Congress to budget money for the bill's programs.
He is not optimistic about that prospect, he said.
He said the FDA needs to step up enforcement.While Marler believes Parnell violated food safety laws, he also said there have been other outbreaks involving worse wrongdoing without criminal charges.
"If you're going to prosecute Stewart Parnell you should start prosecuting a lot of other people. And I think that's what should happen."
Gust said that if all facts were known, "the FDA would be equally on trial." The agency had approved PCA's testing policies, including provisions for retesting samples, he said.
But instead of blame, the FDA got more power, Gust said.
Parnell has started to do some consulting work with peanut companies, but for the most part he has not had a job in two years as he awaits a decision from federal investigators.
Companies hesitate to have a public relationship with him for fear of a backlash, Gust said.
On Tuesday a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the investigation of Parnell.