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Peanut Poison Case Warns Food Companies to Take Salmonella Seriously

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The front entrance of the Peanut Corporation of America Plant in Blakely, Georgia. Owner Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in jail for causing a nationwide salmonella outbreak from tainted peanut butter that killed 9 people and sickened over 700 more.

The owner of a peanut processing corporation that knowingly shipped deadly contaminated products was handed 28 years in prison Monday evening, an unprecedented sentence—the harshest by far in any food safety case. And it could cause food companies to think twice before putting profit over risks to human health.

In Albany, Georgia, U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands told Stewart Parnell, former owner of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), that his actions—which resulted in the deaths of nine people from Salmonella and the illness of at least 714 and possibly many more—”were driven simply by the desire to profit.” Sands also sentenced Parnell’s brother, Michael Parnell, to 20 years in prison, and the plant’s quality-control manager, Mary Wilkerson, to five years.

Criminal prosecution of any food-safety case is rare, and these sentences are unheard of; Other food-safety prosecutions have ended with prison stays of several months, such as in the giant DeCoster Salmonella-eggsDeCoster Salmonella-eggsDeCoster Salmonella-eggs scandal, or with giant fines but no prison time, in the case of ConAgra and a separate peanut butter-related outbreak.

“This sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through board rooms,” the crusading food-safety attorney Bill Marler (who was not involved in this case, but represented some peanut victims in civil suits) tells me by email. “The sentence is less than the maximum, but it is the longest sentence ever in a food poisoning case.”

If the sentences seem extraordinary, the behavior that earned them was, too. The Parnells and Wilkerson were convicted last year in a jury trial on the basis of a 2013 indictment that makes stomach-churning reading. (Here’s a copy of it, at my Scribd account, and my story from when it was made public.) It detailed not only persistent negligence in maintaining the PCA plant—roof leaks, rodent infestations, filth—but active deception in faking origin labeling and falsifying lab results.

The indictment also quoted lying emails to customers. Parnell wrote to a customer whose independent testing found Salmonella: “I am dumbfounded by what you have found. It is the first time in my over 26 years in the peanut business that I have ever seen any instance of this.” And it included jaw-dropping excerpts from internal emails between Parnell and his subordinates. (Warning: the language used here is not family-friendly):

(Count 2) 16. On or about March 21, 2007, upon being told that Salmonella testing results were not yet available and that shipment of a portion of a customer’s product would therefore be delayed, Stewart Parnell stated, via email: “Shit, just ship it. I cannot afford to loose (sic) another customer.”

Food safety watchdogs said after the verdict that they hoped the harsh terms, which the attorney for 61-year-old Stewart Parnell described as “a death sentence,” would send a meaningful message.

“The long sentences handed down today will not bring back the nine Americans who died after eating contaminated peanut products that Parnell and his co-defendants knowingly marketed, nor will they retroactively undo the sicknesses and hospitalizations of those who survived,” David Plunkett, senior food safety attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement. “But they will send a very strong signal to food manufacturers that pursuing profits at the expense of food safety can bring the most severe of consequences.”

And Darin Detwiler, senior policy coordinator at the group STOP Foodborne Illness, said in a separate statement: “My own son died as a result of an E. coli outbreak more than 20 years ago. Though the executives responsible for that outbreak violated various laws, no criminal charges were ever filed against them. This decision will bring some closure to the victims of the PCA outbreak, as well as to those of other outbreaks. This decision will let them know that something is being done by our legal system to prevent outbreaks like these in the future.”

Before pronouncing the sentences, Judge Sands allowed Salmonella victims and their relatives to speak. Food Safety News, which covered the original outbreak and the litigation (and was founded by Marler), quoted testimony from two:

Ten-year old Jacob Hurley, sickened in the outbreak when he was three years old, was there to tell the judge that, when it comes to Stewart Parnell, “I think it’s OK for him to spent the rest of his life in prison.” And Jeff Almer, who lost his mother to the outbreak in December 2008, addressed Stewart Parnell by saying, “You took my mom, you kicked her right off the cliff.”

Attorneys said the Parnells and Wilkerson will appeal.