Former Peanut Corporation of America executive 61-year-old Stewart Parnell has been sentenced to 28 years in prison after being convicted of multiple felonies related to a deadly nationwide Salmonella outbreak. His brother, Michael Parnell, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. That outbreak killed nine people and sickened at least 714 others in 46 states and Canada.
This is the most serious punishment given to a food producer in a foodborne outbreak case. Parnell was convicted of knowingly shipping contaminated product and of falsifying records and lab reports on his products. Most corporations are hit with civil lawsuits after food poisoning outbreaks.
Parnell apologized to those sickened in the outbreak and to the families of those killed. Parnell did face up to 803 years in prison on 67 felony counts. The convictions came last year after a jury trial.
Food safety attorney Brendan Flaherty, said, “Justice means treating people the same. A businessman who killed for profit should be sentenced just like any other killed. The sentence today represents a step toward making our food more safe. This is a landmark result. When you poison our food and do so intentionally, there will be real consequences.”
Families of those sickened testified before the court about their suffering during this outbreak and its aftermath. The recall of Salmonella-tainted peanut products was one of the largest in history. The outbreak was also one of the largest in U.S. history, especially considering that for every case of Salmonella reported to public health officials, at least 30 go unreported.
Noted food safety attorney Fred Pritzker said, “He got what he deserved. His sentence also sends a message to other food executives who put profits before safety. Federal and state prosecutors need to be aggressive in enforcing food safety laws.”
The plant in Blakely, Georgia, where the products were produced had a leaky roof, evidence of roaches and rodents, and unsanitary conditions. Inspectors found mold growing on the ceiling and walls, gaps in the roof, and dead insects near peanuts. The company did not clean its equipment after discovering Salmonella was in the plant. They also did not separate raw and finished products.
Parnell shipped contaminated products knowing they were contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. The FDA reported that PCA shipped tainted products without retesting, before re-test results came back from a third party, and after a second test showed no contamination. The first positive result should have lead to the products being destroyed.
While peanuts are roasted before being turned into peanut butter or peanut paste, preventing contamination of the finished product is crucial. The presence of insects, including roaches, and rodents in the plant provide perfect conditions for bacterial contamination.