The former owner of Georgia peanut company yesterday received a sentence of 28 years in prison for his role in a Salmonella outbreak that resulted in several deaths.
Stewart Parnell, former CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America, and his brother, Michael Parnell, a food broker working on the company’s behalf, were convicted on federal conspiracy charges in September 2014 for knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanuts to customers. The outbreak killed nine people and sickened hundreds. Michael Parnell received a 20-year sentence and he plant’s quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, received five years.
Stewart Parnell’s 28-year sentence is the harshest criminal penalty ever for a U.S. producer in a food-borne illness case. The maximum possible punishment was 803 years in prison, but Judge W. Louis Sands called this “inappropriate.” Parnell is 61 years old.
The Parnell brothers and Wilkerson were not charged with any deaths or for making people ill. Rather, their sentences were a result of defrauding corporate customers such as Kellogg’s, which turned the company’s peanuts and peanut butter into finished products.
During the trial, the prosecution’s opening statement cited a March 2007 email that Parnell sent to a plant manager about contaminated products: “Just ship it.” An October 2008 email to a Georgia plant manager said that the delay “is costing us huge $$$$$.”
A January 2009 FDA report detailed the contamination at the company’s plant in Blakely, Ga. The contamination was uncovered by private laboratory microbiological testing conducted by the Peanut Corporation of America itself. The findings led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Peanut Corporation of America lost about $143 million and later went into bankruptcy.
A February 2009 FDA inspection of the company’s Texas facility found rodent excrement and numerous dead rodents; air-makeup system filters littered with feathers, lint, dust, and miscellaneous foreign debris; and a leaky roof dripping rainwater into the plant’s peanut processing areas.
Years before that, a November 2001 FDA inspection of the Georgia plant cited “Objectionable conditions observed included ill-repaired, equipment, gaps or spaces between an unloading door seal and a semi-trailer that could permit pest ingress into the plant, and webbing and several dead beetles on several multi-plied paper bags of Sunflower Kernels stored on a pallet in the raw material storage warehouse.”
Federal investigators discovered emails and other records showing that food was shipped to customers despite testing positive for salmonella. Other batches were not tested in the first place, but were shipped anyway because they were given fake lab records saying salmonella screenings were negative.