UPDATE 2-U.S. indicts peanut processors in 2009 salmonella outbreak
* Outbreak sickened 700 in 46 states, tied to nine deaths
* Long-awaited criminal charges target five people
(Updates infections total, adds victim reaction and case details)
WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors said on Thursday they brought criminal fraud and conspiracy charges against peanut company employees tied to a 2009 salmonella outbreak blamed for nine U.S. deaths.
The charges filed in U.S. District Court in Georgia on Wednesday included fraud, conspiracy and the introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce, according to court papers.
The contaminated peanut products forced one of the biggest recalls in U.S. history. Federal health officials said 700 people in 46 states were infected, with nine deaths.
Peanut Corp of America was liquidated after the outbreak and is no longer in business.
Internal company messages in 2009 showed owner Stewart Parnell complaining about lost profits while the food poisoning was investigated. He later refused to testify after U.S. lawmakers subpoenaed him to appear at a hearing.
Parnell, 58, was among five people charged, including with obstruction of justice.
The Justice Department said he and three other company officials participated in a scheme to ship what they knew were salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut products, misleading customers and putting them at risk.
"When those responsible for producing or supplying our food lie and cut corners, as alleged in the indictment, they put all of us at risk," Stuart Delery, head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, said in a statement.
Neither Parnell nor his lawyer could immediately be reached for comment.
Some of those affected by the outbreak welcomed the criminal charges, having asked for them four years ago.
"I'm ecstatic. I would equate it to wishing for something to happen more than anything else you ever wanted in life and waiting years for it to occur," said Jeff Almer, whose mother died after eating peanut butter.
"This has been my life's mission for the last four years since my mom died - to try to get some justice," he said.
Randy Napier, whose mother also died after eating contaminated peanut butter, said he had been frustrated because the Justice Department was tight-lipped as it moved toward the indictments. He began to doubt there would be action.
"I feel relieved that our Justice Department was doing their job," he said from North Carolina. "I can finally actually put my mom to rest."
ONE GUILTY PLEA
One of those charged, Daniel Kilgore, 44, pleaded guilty on Wednesday, prosecutors said.
Kilgore was operations manager of the company's plant in Blakely, Georgia, from 2002 to 2008. He waived an official indictment and admitted to fraud, conspiracy and introduction of adulterated food into commerce, prosecutors said.
Two other Peanut Corp of America employees face charges: Samuel Lightsey, 48, the Blakely operations manager after Kilgore, and Mary Wilkerson, 39, a quality assurance manager.
A fifth person, Michael Parnell, 54, a food broker at P.P. Sales who worked on behalf of the peanut company, was also charged.
When inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration visited the Blakely plant in January 2009 after the initial outbreak, Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson lied about what they knew, prosecutors said.
A conviction for fraud or obstruction of justice carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, while illegally introducing tainted food into interstate commerce carries a three-year maximum, Michael Moore, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said at a news conference in Washington.
Actual sentences could be much lower depending on prior criminal past and other factors. Moore said he expects those charged to appear in court within the next week.
(Additional reporting by Toni Clarke and Diane Bartz; Editing by Doina Chiacu)