Business Strategies / Industry News / Food Safety

Peanut Corp. Officers Sentenced to Jail

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Sep 21, 2015

One year after his conviction, Stewart Parnell, owner of the now-defunct Peanut Corp. of America, was sentenced to 28 years in prison Sept. 21 for the 2008-2009 salmonella outbreak that apparently killed nine people and sickened 714 people in 43 states.

His brother, Michael Parnell, a food broker associated with the company, received 20 years, and Mary Wilkerson, the plant's former quality control manager, got five years. All apparently knew they had shipped salmonella-tainted peanut butter mostly to branded food processors -- including Kellogg Co., General Mills and Ralcorp -- and they falsified records to cover that deed.

On Sept. 19 of last year, Parnell was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes related to the recall, 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.

All were found guilty following a seven-week trial last August and September in Georgia Middle District Court in Albany. Two former plant managers earlier pleaded guilty in the case. Reports at the time said it was the first time American food processors stood trial in a food-poisoning case.

Federal investigators said the company's 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 having considered going for the death penalty, although he later 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.

"I am personally embarrassed, humiliated and morally disgraced by what happened," Associated Press quoted Stewart Parnell as saying, noting that he also acknowledged that some might see his apology as coming too late.

"It's been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family," Parnell told the judge. "All I can do is come before you and ask for forgiveness from you and the people back here. I'm truly sorry for what happened."