Three Peanut Corp. Defendants Found Guilty

Sept. 21, 2014
Five years after nine deaths and hundreds sickened; jail terms could be 30 years.

It took five years, but three people connected with the former Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) were convicted of various criminal charges for intentionally allowing peanut butter tainted with salmonella into the food supply, apparently killing nine people and sickening 714 people in 43 states.

Reports said it was the first time an American food company or its executives were prosecuted on federal charges in a food poisoning case. While the likely jail terms could be decades long, none of the defendants was charged with anything connected to the deaths, and the jury did not hear evidence that anyone died.

Stewart Parnell, owner of PCA, could face more than 30 years in prison. He was convicted Sept. 19 of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes related to the 2008-2009 outbreak, one of the country's largest food poisoning incidents. The recall involved some 800 products from dozens of food processors who bought peanut products from PCA.

Also convicted were his brother, Michael Parnell, a food broker associated with the company, and Mary Wilkerson, the plant's quality control manager. All were found guilty following a seven-week trial in Georgia Middle District Court in Albany. Two former plant managers earlier pleaded guilty in the case.

The verdict means Stewart Parnell knowingly shipping tainted peanut butter and peanut products to customers -- such as Kellogg Co., General Mills and Ralcorp -- ignoring tests that indicated salmonella and falsifying other lab tests.

Federal investigators said the plant, in Blakely, Ga., had a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents, and they uncovered emails and records showing food confirmed by lab tests to contain salmonella was shipped to customers anyway.

Peanut Corp. of America went bankrupt after the recalls.

The local U.S. Attorney, whose office prosecuted the case, was reported in local media as saying he had doubts about whether death evidence would be admissible, or whether convictions in the case would be vulnerable to appeals if the trial judge allowed the jury to hear that people died. Instead, they prosecuted what essentially was a fraud case. The judge did allow evidence that people got ill.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Dasher was quoted in media reports that the Parnells will likely get 27 to 33 years in prison, while Wilkerson faces a maximum term of 20 years.

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