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Federal prosecutors announced criminal charges today against four former executives of the Peanut Corporation of America. Contaminated food often leads to civil lawsuits; consumers demanding money. But these criminal charges could result in jail time for selling peanut products that were contaminated with salmonella. The resulting outbreak four years ago made more than 700 people sick.

Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Federal officials say there were a whole array of problems at the Peanut Corporation of America's factory in Blakely, Georgia. There was contamination with salmonella because the company didn't keep its factory clean enough.

They say there was also deception. When tests showed that a batch of peanut paste contained traces of salmonella, company executives just re-tested that batch and when the second test came up clean they sold it. They also issued certificates stating that products were free of salmonella when no tests had been done.

And prosecutors say in the middle of the salmonella outbreak of 2009, when inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration showed up, company officials lied to them.

Some of the people who got sick in 2009 sued the company years ago and won. It put the company out of business. Now, the company's former owner, Stewart Parnell, and three other executives are facing federal charges that could put them in prison for up to 20 years. Another former executive has pleaded guilty.

Around the country, farmers, food retailers and lawyers have been watching all this with great interest.

BRAD SULLIVAN: It really is an unprecedented case, so you follow it.

CHARLES: That's Brad Sullivan, an attorney in Salinas, California, who often defends food companies in court. But his clients have never faced jail time.

SULLIVAN: In my belief, it's at least the first high-profile criminal prosecution.

CHARLES: At least in recent memory.

SULLIVAN: And I use it to educate a client. And a client can be a farmer, a processor, you know, a distributor.

CHARLES: Sullivan says the lesson is if safety officials think your products might possibly be making people sick, don't get in the way of their investigation - turn over records, open up your facilities.

The lawyer for Stewart Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, released a statement saying Parnell never intentionally shipped any tainted food. Federal and state officials, he says, were well aware of the company's practices and never raised any objections.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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