An ex-peanut company mogul may spend the rest of his life behind bars after a federal judge in Georgia on Monday sentenced him to 28 years for shipping tainted products that caused a deadly nationwide salmonella outbreak seven years ago.
Stewart Parnell, the former Peanut Corporation of America owner, was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes related the 2008 and 2009 outbreak that killed nine people, sickened more than 700 and prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Two others involved with the now-bankrupt company also were sentenced to long prison terms.
Monday's sentences are the first felony punishments for executives in a food-borne outbreak in 77 years, according to attorney Bill Marler, who represents several victims of Parnell's products.
“It’s significant -- very significant," Marler said after the sentencing. "Even if [they] end up not spending much time in jail, the sentences send a strong message to executives."
Four victims testified during the sentencing, including 7-year-old Jacob Hurley, who was 3 when he became seriously ill from crackers made with tainted peanut products. Also present was Lou Tousignant, whose 78-year-old father, Cliff, died after eating tainted peanut butter.
Cliff Tousignant "was a Korean War vet with three Purple Hearts who lived in Minnesota. He got all shot up [in the war]," Marler said. "So he comes back and dies from eating peanut butter? There’s something fundamentally wrong with that."
Tainted products from Parnell's Georgia processing plant led to the recall of approximately 4,000 processed foods, from crackers to pet food.
Parnell's attorneys argued their client was a scapegoat. Jurors, who heard evidence of unsanitary conditions that included roaches, rodents, bird droppings and a leaky roof, were unconvinced.
Email, lab and financial records showed that Parnell was aware of the conditions and wrote an email to a manager in 2007, saying: "Just ship it."
In some cases, products were shipped the same day they were processed rather than held for lab tests, and records were faked to indicate the outgoing batches passed salmonella tests.
Michael Parnell, the executive's brother, a food broker who provided companies like Kellogg's with peanut paste from Peanut Corporation of America, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mary Wilkerson, quality control manager at the Georgia-based factory, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Marler said he would not be surprised if Parnell and his co-defendants served just a few years.
"It’s not so much how much time they spend, it’s the fact that the government, for the first time since 1938, prosecuted corporate executives poisoning customers," Marler said.
Marler noted that several of the victims and their family members have became food safety advocates since the outbreak and supported 2011's Food Safety Modernization Act, which the Food and Drug Administration called "the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years."
"All of them view this as a kind of a door closing. They can put this behind them now," Marler said. "The same families who testified were the ones who testified before Congress asking for more food safety regulations. It’s not just about justice in a criminal court sense -- it's about stopping this from happening to other people again."
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