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Peanut company officials stand trial in Georgia in deadly salmonella outbreak

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - The federal trial of three former peanut company officials charged in connection with a salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds more began on Monday with jury selection in Albany, Georgia.

The contamination at the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Georgia, led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history and forced the company into liquidation.

Former owner Stewart Parnell, and his brother, Michael Parnell, a food broker who worked on behalf of the peanut company, were charged last year in a 76-count indictment asserting they created fake certificates showing their products were uncontaminated when laboratory results showed otherwise.

The plant's quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, and Stewart Parnell were also charged with obstruction of justice.

The investigation into the company began in 2009, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced a national outbreak of salmonella earlier that year to the Blakely plant.

FDA inspectors found that the plant, which roasted raw peanuts and made peanut butter and peanut paste, was unsanitary and lacked controls to keep out rodents and insects.

The charges against the Parnells include mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, and introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud or mislead.

A former operations manager at the plant pleaded guilty in May to several charges similar to those the Parnells face and is awaiting sentencing, with prosecutors recommending no more than six years in prison.

Lawyers for Stewart Parnell have said he never intentionally oversaw shipment of tainted food for sale, maintaining that health regulators were aware of the company's salmonella testing protocols and did not object to them.

A conviction for fraud or obstruction of justice carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, while illegally introducing tainted food into interstate commerce carries a three-year maximum.