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Peanut factory boss refuses to talk to Congress

THE owner of a United States peanut company refused to testify to Congress yesterday while it emerged he urged his workers to ship bacteria-tainted products, pleading with employees to "turn the raw peanuts on the floor into money."

Stewart Parnell, owner of Peanut Corp of America, repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself before the House subcommittee holding a hearing on a US salmonella outbreak blamed on his company.

The outbreak has struck down about 600 people, may have caused nine deaths and has led to the huge recall of 1,800 products. Parnell sat stiffly, his hands folded in his lap at the witness table, as Republican Greg Walden held up a jar of his company's product and asked him if he would be willing to eat the food.

"Mr Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectively decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the US Constitution," Parnell said. After repeating the statement several times, he was dismissed from the hearing.

The House panel released e-mails obtained by its investigators showing Parnell ordered products identified with salmonella shipped and complained that tests discovering the contamination were "costing us huge $$$$$$."

At one point Parnell said his workers "at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money." In another exchange, he told his plant manager to "turn them loose" after products were cleared in a second test.

Parnell's response to a final lab test showing salmonella concerned how much it was costing the company.

"The time lapse, beside the cost is costing us huge $$$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice," he wrote in an e-mail to Sammy Lightsey, his plant manager.

Lightsey also invoked his right not to testify when he appeared alongside Parnell before the subcommittee.

"Their behavior is criminal, in my opinion. I want to see jail time," said Jeffrey Almer, whose 72-year-old mother died of salmonella poisoning after eating Peanut Corp's peanut butter.


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