Rupert Cornwell: He's public enemy No 1 – but he's in peanuts, not banking

Out of America: A congressional hearing on the contamination of this national staple, which left at least eight people dead, has overshadowed the roasting of bankers

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Who's the most vilified man in the US right now? Some Wall Street type, you will doubtless reply: one of those bank bosses who paid themselves huge bonuses for losing vast amounts of other people's money and sending the entire global economy into a tailspin. Wrong. The answer has to be Stewart Parnell, guilty in the court of public opinion (and maybe soon in a court of law) of casting a deadly cloud over an American gastronomic staple.

On Wednesday, as Citi's Vikram Pandit, Kenneth Lewis of Bank of America and half a dozen of their peers did their penance on Capitol Hill ("I get the new reality," Mr Pandit meekly told the House Financial Services Committee), Mr Parnell was also being grilled by Congress. The difference was that the fallen masters of the universe at least answered the questions put to them. Mr Parnell refused to do so, prompting one splendid newspaper headline, "Peanut CEO takes the Fifth".

As well he might. Mr Parnell is chief executive of the Peanut Corporation of America, one of whose plants in Georgia shipped peanut products infected by salmonella – and continued to do so even after the contamination had shown up in dozens of tests in 2007 and 2008. When one lab kept finding traces of salmonella, the Peanut Corporation simply went to another lab. After everything else failed, Mr Parnell begged the FDA, the country's food watchdog agency, not to intervene. "We desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money," he said in one email dated last month, released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Let's turn them loose," was Mr Parnell's breezy instruction as to what to do with some other tainted products, according to another email.

At least eight people are believed to have died and over 500 others to have fallen ill from salmonella poisoning traceable to the Georgia factory. Last week, meanwhile, investigators shut down another Peanut Corporation plant in Texas after finding dead rodents and rodent droppings on the premises.

Not surprisingly, Mr Parnell was not inclined to give Congress the rope to hang him. "On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions under the protection afforded me under the US constitution," was his formulaic response to every question, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Even when a committee member held up a plastic jar wrapped in police tape, containing some of the suspect products, and asked Mr Parnell if he wanted to try one, he gave the same robotic reply.

After a while, the committee sent him packing – forcing their reluctant witness to run the gauntlet of a jostling bevy of reporters who chased him for several blocks. The bankers were spared that indignity. But they are in the business of money. Mr Parnell is custodian of a scarcely less important national resource – the mighty peanut. If there's a country that loves peanuts like the US, I'm not aware of it. Peanuts turn up everywhere: not just as an accompaniment to drinks, but in ice creams, confectionery, cookies and even dog food. Then, of course, there's peanut butter, one of America's food trademarks, up there with the hamburger and the hot dog.

Personally, I'm not wild about the stuff, but in this country I sometimes feel like I'm in a minority of one. Precisely who invented peanut butter is a matter of dispute. One solid claimant is Dr John Harvey Kellogg, of cornflakes fame, who in 1895 patented a process turning raw peanuts into a butter-like health food. Others say it dates back to the Aztecs and Incas. Indisputably, though, it is now utterly American, an $800m (£555m) chunk of a total US peanut industry worth $6bn annually. Each American gets through 3lb of it a year.

The Peanut Corporation of America is thus one guardian of a mighty national tradition. As a peanut processor, it buys nuts from farmers and turns them into meal, paste and butter, or plain roasts them, before supplying these products to other food companies, and directly to a variety of retail outlets as well as schools, nursing homes and other institutions.

Investigators have pinpointed the sources of the contamination, and insist it is fully under control. Even so, they have ordered the recall of 1,900 products (some of which the congressman brandished in his jar). And as always with health scares, the ripples have spread throughout entire product categories – hastened by reports that, in the wake of the salmonella outbreak, the authorities will declare peanuts per se a high-risk foodstuff.

Peanut butter ought to be a recession-proof comfort food, if ever there was one. Instead, sales have tumbled by 25 per cent, forcing some manufacturers to take out newspaper advertisements proclaiming their products are safe. According to The New York Times, fancy desserts such as peanut butter semifreddo have temporarily disappeared from menus at certain trendy eateries in the city.

For peanut farmers, the scandal threatens even greater disaster. Thanks to a bumper 2008 crop, there were simply too many peanuts on the market, even before the Peanut Corporation of America debacle – a surplus of 900,000 tons, or half a year's normal consumption. Now that consumption could plunge further. Confectionery companies are cutting orders of peanuts, it is said, because of declining sales of peanut candy.

One way or another, Stewart Parnell has much to answer for. As a rule, high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill are vehicles of self-promotion for the representatives and senators who hold them. This time, however, the theatrical public shaming was surely more than justified. Grinding recession is already misery enough – but now even dependable old peanut butter, standby of daily life for millions, cannot be trusted.

As Jeffrey Almer, whose mother died from the salmonella poisoning, told the hearing, "Cancer couldn't claim her, but peanut butter did." Could there be a more poignant American epitaph? Alas, Mr Parnell wasn't in the room to hear it.

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