04.01.09

Leahy Urges Attorney General To Examine Pistachio Recall

WASHINGTON (Wednesday, April 1, 2009) – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Tuesday sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging the Justice Department to look into the recall ofpistachios marketed by Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., and asking the Department to review existing legal avenues for addressing the distribution of contaminated food products. 

On Tuesday, the California-based company voluntarily recalled nearly two million pounds of pistachios under suspicion that the nuts may be contaminated with salmonella.  It is the second major food recall this year involving salmonella contamination.  Earlier this year, more than 2,000 products containing peanuts processed or manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) were recalled for possible salmonella contamination.  A Food and Drug Administration report stated that PCA knowingly sold peanut products containing salmonella. On January 30, Leahy wrote a letter to then-Acting Attorney General Mark Filip urging the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).  The president of PCA, Stewart Parnell has refused to testify before Congress about the contamination. 

“Given the seriousness of these most recent nationwide recalls, I would also ask that you, as the Attorney General, review the existing legal structure for addressing the distribution of contaminated food products and then advise me if the Justice Department needs any additional legal authorities to protect the American people more effectively from the distribution of contaminated food products.  In particular, I would like to know your views on whether current statutes provide sufficient criminal sanctions for those who knowingly violate our food safety laws,” Leahy wrote.    

Nine deaths and more than 700 illnesses have been attributed to salmonella contamination linked to PCA products.  A 7-year-old South Burlington, Vermont, boy fell ill from salmonella tainted products from PCA, and on February 5, Gabrielle Meunier testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee about her son’s illness.  Leahy is a senior member of the Agriculture Committee.

The text of Leahy’s letter to Attorney General Holder follows.  A PDF is available online.

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March 31, 2009

The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.

Attorney General

United States Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I am writing you in response to the announcement that more than two million pounds of pistachios produced by California-based Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc. must be recalled due to possible salmonella contamination.  While there are few reports of illness at this point, I fear that further investigation will lead to the recall of significantly more pistachio products and the discovery of additional illnesses. 

This case could ultimately raise concerns similar to those uncovered by the ongoing criminal investigation into contaminated peanuts produced by the Peanut Corporation of America (“PCA”) at plants in Georgia and Texas.  Six weeks ago, the president of PCA, Stewart Parnell, invoked his right against self-incrimination before Congress and refused to answer questions about his conduct in distributing contaminated peanut products that have been linked to the deaths of nine people and have sickened more than 700 others.  Based on documents disclosed at the hearing, it appears that Parnell knew that peanut products from his company had tested positive for deadly salmonella.  It appears that rather than immediately disposing of the products, as is standard practice in the industry, he sought ways to sell the contaminated products.  This evidence suggests that he knowingly put profit above the public’s safety.  

While I understand that Setton Pistachio has voluntarily agreed to certain recalls, and I applaud them for doing so, I expect the Justice Department and other federal agencies to follow the facts wherever they lead in this latest case of salmonella contaminated products, just as they did in the case of PCA, and to investigate all the circumstances as warranted.  

Given the seriousness of these most recent nationwide recalls, I would also ask that you, as the Attorney General, review the existing legal structure for addressing the distribution of contaminated food products and then advise me if the Justice Department needs any additional legal authorities to protect the American people more effectively from the distribution of contaminated food products.  In particular, I would like to know your views on whether current statutes provide sufficient criminal sanctions for those who knowingly violate our food safety laws.    

Sincerely,  

PATRICK LEAHY

Chairman

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