Top brass at Peanut Corp. of America (PCA), whose contaminated peanut products are blamed for sickening 600 people and possibly killing eight others since September, refused to testify today at a congressional hearing. The company closed a second plant, this one in Plainview, Tex., yesterday after tests confirmed it also was contaminated with salmonella.

PCA President Stewart Parnell and Sammy Lightsey, manager of PCA's Blakely, Ga., plant, invoked their constitutional right to remain silent (to avoid providing information that might be self-incriminating evidence of illegal action) during a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on the salmonella outbreak. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the company knowingly shipped contaminated products from the Blakely plant, which was shuttered after the feds traced the salmonella outbreak in 44 states to peanut butter, paste and other ingredients made there.

California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman released internal PCA e-mails today showing that Parnell was worried about the economic loss of delaying shipments of products. "The time lapse … is costing us huge $$$$," he wrote in an e-mail to Lightsey dated October 6, 2008. In another e-mail sent last month to the FDA after PCA had begun recalling products, Parnell pleaded: "We … desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money."

What these emails show, Waxman said, "is this company cared more about its financial bottom line than about the safety of customers."

The FDA and FBI have launched a criminal investigation into PCA. We've got a guide to the salmonella outbreak with the lowdown on how the bacteria gets into peanut butter and our previous coverage of the scandal. Click here for the full FDA list of recalled products

Image by Dano via Flickr