ALBANY, Ga. (AP) - A Georgia peanut plant manager testified Friday that his company had been shipping contaminated nuts with fake documents showing them to be salmonella-free before the plant was identified as the source of a nationwide outbreak that killed nine Americans and sickened more than 700.
"In my mind, I wasn't intentionally hurting anyone," Sammy Lightsey told jurors at the trial of his former boss, Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell, and two others.
Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, are accused of shipping tainted products to customers and covering up lab tests showing they contained salmonella. Stewart Parnell and the Georgia plant's quality assurance manager, Mary Wilkerson, are also charged with obstructing justice. Experts say it's the first time corporate officers and managers have gone to trial on federal charges in a food poisoning case.
GA. peanut plant chief: we faked salmonella tests
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 11: Greg Walden, Congressman (D-OR) holds a sample of recall food products during the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter Wednesday morning in Rayburn Building in SE DC. (Photo by Kevin Clark/Washington Post/Getty Images)
BLAKELY, GA - FEBRUARY 5: The front entrance of the Peanut Corporation of America Plant is seen February 5, 2009 in Blakely, Georgia. The plant is linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak from tainted peanut butter that has sickened over 500 people and prompted international product recalls. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Jeff Almer of Savage, Minn., appears on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing to examine the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products. His mother, mother, 72-year-old Shirley Mae Almer, shown in a family photo, died after eating tainted peanut butter at a Brainerd, Minn., assisted-living home. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE -In this Jan. 29, 2009 file photo, an Early County, Ga. Sheriff's car sits parked in front of the the Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Blakely, Ga. A federal grand jury indicted four employees of a peanut company, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, linked to a 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds. The indictment was unsealed in federal court in Georgia and charges four employees with Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)
Three-year-old Jacob Hurley joins his father, Peter Hurley, at the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations during a hearing on the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. Peter Hurley, testified to the subcommittee how Jacob was sickened by his favorite snack because the crackers contained tainted peanut products. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 04: A jar of peanut butter sits on the dias as HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt speaks with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., before the start of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on food safety on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007. The jar of peanut butter, which belongs to one of Sen. Burr's committee staff members, was recalled due to the possibility of salmonella contamination. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
Glen Martin, left, and John Dyke, connect an eight-row lister to a tractor before preparing a 30-acre peanut field on Martin & Sons Farm Monday, April 6, 2009, near Brownfield, Texas. Peanuts make up about 10% of the farm's 4,500 acres. The battered peanut industry is involved in a lobbying and public relations campaign in Washington, a delicate strategy to help the industry rebound after the salmonella outbreak linked to the Peanut Corp. of America. (AP photo/Geoffrey McAllister)
Glen Martin, left, and John Dyke, connect an eight-row lister to a tractor before preparing a 30-acre peanut field on Martin & Sons Farm Monday, April 6, 2009, near Brownfield, Texas. Peanuts make up about 10% of the farm's 4,500 acres. The battered peanut industry is involved in a lobbying and public relations campaign in Washington, a delicate strategy to help the industry rebound after the salmonella outbreak linked to the Peanut Corp. of America. (AP Photo/Geoffrey McAllister)
The Peanut Corp. of America plant is seen on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009, in Blakely, Ga. The plant that may be linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak. Peanut Corp. of America voluntarily recalled peanut butter produced at the plant, pending the outcome of an investigation. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor)
FILE - In this Thursday, March 12, 2009 file photo, Peanut Corporation of America's president Stewart Parnell, arrives at United States Federal Court in Lynchburg, Va. The nation's first federal criminal trial stemming from a deadly outbreak of food-borne illness is presenting jurors with a disconcerting fact: America's food safety largely depends on the honor system. Witnesses say Parnell and other Peanut Corporation of America workers knowingly shipped salmonella tainted nuts with faked data showing they were clean. Their defense, Salmonella tests aren't even required by law. (AP Photo/Don Petersen, File)
File-This Nov. 27, 2012 file photo shows the Sunland Inc. peanut butter and nut processing plant in eastern New Mexico, near Portales. Nearly a million jars of peanut butter are being dumped at a New Mexico landfill to expedite the sale of Sunland Inc. the bankrupt peanut-processing plant that was at the heart of a 2012 salmonella outbreak and nationwide recall. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)
Three-year-old Jacob Hurley smiles and waves at the urging of congressmen at the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations during a hearing on the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. His father, Peter Hurley, testified to the subcommittee how Jacob was sickened by his favorite snack, Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter, because the crackers contained tainted peanut products from Peanut Corporation of America. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
From left, Jeffrey Almer, Lou Tousignant, and Peter K. Hurley, are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, prior to testifying before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing to examine the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America. Almer's mother died after eating tainted peanut butter, as did Tousignant's father, a veteran of combat in Korea. Hurley's son was sickened from tainted peanut butter crackers but has recovered. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., left, watches as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., right, holds up a container of food items that were recalled due to the recent salmonella outbreak associated with peanut products manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Dr. Stephen Sundlof, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009, before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The hearing was on the national outbreak salmonella through peanut processing plants.(AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 04: U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) (2nd-R) speaks about salmonella poisoning while flanked by Gabrielle Meunier (L), whose son was sickened by salmonella tainted peanut butter, Jeff Almer (R), whose mother died of salmonella poisoning in peanut butter, and Caroline Smith DeWaal (2nd-L), from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, during a news conference on Capitol Hill February 4, 2009 in Washington, DC. Rep. DeLauro is introducing food safety reform legislation which would modernize food safety laws and restructure food safety efforts by splitting the Food and Drug Administration into two separate agencies. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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Lightsey, who managed the plant from July 2008 until the company went bankrupt following the outbreak in 2009, pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in May after agreeing to testify for prosecutors in exchange for a lighter sentence. He was the top manager at the peanut plant, reporting directly to Stewart Parnell.
Soon after taking the job, Lightsey said, he discovered that peanut paste was being shipped to Kellogg's for use in peanut butter crackers the same day they were produced, without waiting the 48 hours it takes to receive results of lab tests for salmonella and other contaminants.
Rather than wait, Lightsey said, the plant would ship paste with lab results that actually came from different batches tested a week earlier, certifying they were negative for salmonella.
Lightsey said he confronted Michael Parnell, who handled the contract for Kellogg, one of the company's biggest customers.
"I went to the office and called Mike Parnell and I told him we can't do this; it was illegal and it was wrong," Lightsey said. "He informed me it was set up before I got there and don't worry about Kellogg's, he can handle Kellogg's."
Lightsey said he didn't push the issue further. He didn't say if he ever discussed the fake lab results with Stewart Parnell.
Defense attorneys won't be able to cross-examine Lightsey until next week.
Lightsey testified that prosecutors agreed to cap his prison sentence at 6 years - compared to a possible 76-year sentence if he didn't take their plea deal. Judge W. Louis Sands told jurors to keep in mind that Lightsey "may have a reason to make a false statement."
The defense has already noted that it was Lightsey who initially lied to the Food and Drug Administration inspectors who arrived at the plant after it was linked to salmonella poisoning.
Two FDA investigators testified Lightsey first told them the plant had only one test showing salmonella, and that it had turned out to be a false positive. Five days later, he admitted that lab testing had confirmed salmonella three times during his six months as a manager. The FDA later found 12 positive tests in a span of two years.
The Georgia plant was shut down and Peanut Corp. went bankrupt, but by then the outbreak had prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 714 people in 46 states were infected and nine people died - three in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.