Three executives of the former Peanut Corporation of America are to be sentenced this week for illnesses and deaths in the huge Salmonella outbreak in 2008-2009 linked to their peanut butter products. Stewart Parnell was convicted of 68 felony counts, including “conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury”, conspiracy to engage in mail and wire fraud, and introduction of adulterated and misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead.
His brother Michael Parnell was convicted of 30 felony counts, and Mary Wilkerson, plant manager, was found guilty of obstruction of justice. Both brothers could go to prison for the rest of their lives on these convictions, and will be sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands.
That deadly outbreak is especially notable for the famous phrase “just ship it”, written in a March 2007 email by Stewart Parnell to a plant manager about products they knew were contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. Mary Wilkerson wrote an email that stated, “We have a problem with Salmonella every other week if not every week.”
Noted national food safety attorney Fred Pritzker represented clients in this deadly outbreak. He said, “Plenty of companies have been cavalier about food safety, but nobody has put it in writing like Parnell.” Pritzker added that these convictions and sentences are “unprecedented.” He said, “He is going to get serious time, not just a slap on the wrist.”
The outbreak was reported over on April 2009. At least 714 people were infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium in 46 states. The case count was: Alabama (2), Arizona (14), Arkansas (6), California (81), Colorado (18), Connecticut (11), Florida (1), Georgia (6), Hawaii (6), Idaho (17), Illinois (12), Indiana (11), Iowa (3), Kansas (2), Kentucky (3), Louisiana (1), Maine (5), Maryland (11), Massachusetts (49), Michigan (38), Minnesota (44), Missouri (15), Mississippi (7), Montana (2), Nebraska (1), New Hampshire (14), New Jersey (24), New York (34), Nevada (7), North Carolina (6), North Dakota (17), Ohio (102), Oklahoma (4), Oregon (15), Pennsylvania (19), Rhode Island (5), South Dakota (4), Tennessee (14), Texas (10), Utah (8), Vermont (4), Virginia (24), Washington (25), West Virginia (2), Wisconsin (5), and Wyoming (2). One person in Canada was also sick.
Deaths in this outbreak were reported in Minnesota (3), Idaho (1), North Carolina (1), Ohio (2), and Virginia (3). A total of 116 patients were hospitalized.
Peanut butter was fingered as the source of the bacteria. An investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health found that King Nut creamy peanut butter was the likely source of Salmonella infections in that state. It was sold to long-term care facilities, hospitals, schools, universities, restaurants, delis, cafeterias, and bakeries. The Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Georgia Department of Agriculture found Salmonella in unopened 5-pound containers of King Nut peanut butter.
There was also an association between the outbreak and pre-packaged Austin and Keebler brands peanut butter crackers that were made by the Kellogg Company. Those crackers were made using peanut paste from the Peanut Corporation of America.
On January 28, 2009, PCA voluntarily recalled all peanuts and peanut products made in its Blakely, Georgia facility since January 2007. The recall included roasted peanuts and other peanut products. More than 2,833 peanut-containing products produced by many different companies may have been made with recalled PCA peanuts.
Investigations into the outbreak and evidence presented at the criminal trials showed that conditions at the PCA pant were poor. One email sent in the company began with this sentence: “They [peanuts] need to be air hosed off because they’re covered in dust and rat crap.”
In addition, defendants misled consumers by falsifying certificates of analysis (COAs) stating that the peanuts were free from Salmonella bacteria when they were not, or had never been tested. When visited by investigators, Stewart Parnell and Wilkerson lied in response to questions. The facility had a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents, according to investigators who visited the plant during the outbreak.