Plant's owner refuses to talk

WASHINGTON --- See the jar, the congressman challenged Stewart Parnell, holding up a container of the peanut seller's products and asking whether he'd dare eat them. Mr. Parnell took the Fifth.

The owner of the peanut company at the heart of the massive salmonella recall refused to answer the lawmaker's questions -- or any others -- Wednesday about the bacteria-tainted products he defiantly told employees to ship to 50 manufacturers of cookies, crackers and ice cream.

"Turn them loose," Mr. Parnell had told his plant manager in an internal e-mail disclosed at the House hearing. The e-mail referred to products that once were deemed contaminated but were cleared in a second test last year.

Summoned by subpoena, the owner of Peanut Corp. of America repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the salmonella outbreak that has sickened about 600 people, could be linked to nine deaths -- the latest reported in Ohio on Wednesday -- and resulted in the recall of more than 1,900 items.

Mr. Parnell sat as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held up a jar of his company's products wrapped in crime-scene tape and asked whether he would eat them.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution," Mr. Parnell responded.

After he repeated the statement several times, lawmakers dismissed him from the hearing.

Shortly after, a lab tester told the panel the company discovered salmonella at its Blakely, Ga., plant as far back as 2006. Food and Drug Administration officials told lawmakers more federal inspections could have helped prevent the outbreak.

The House panel released e-mails obtained by its investigators showing Mr. Parnell ordered products identified with salmonella to be shipped and quoting his complaints that tests discovering the contaminated food were "costing us huge $$$$$."

In mid-January, after the outbreak was tied to his company, Mr. Parnell told Food and Drug Administration officials that he and his company "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."

In a separate message to his employees, Mr. Parnell insisted the outbreak did not start at his plant.