Former peanut company CEO sentenced to 28 years for salmonella outbreak

22 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Former CEO of peanut plant tied to salmonella outbreak sentenced to 28 years.

A former peanut company executive was sentenced Monday to 28 years in prison — the stiffest punishment ever handed out to a producer in a foodborne illness case — for his role in a deadly salmonella outbreak that killed three elderly Minnesotans.

A U.S. district judge in Albany, Ga., sentenced Stewart Parnell, the 61-year-old former owner of Peanut Corp. of America, after a jury found him guilty last year on dozens of felony counts, including conspiracy to conceal that many of the company’s products were contaminated with salmonella. Relatives of Americans whose deaths were linked to salmonella-tainted food from a Georgia peanut plant are applauding stiff prison sentences imposed on the plant’s owner and two others. Between 2008 and 2009, nine people died and more than 700 others fell ill after eating peanut butter or other products made at the company’s plant in rural Georgia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The prison sentence — believed to be by far the harshest ever levied in a food-safety case — highlights the government’s stricter enforcement of food-safety laws following several major outbreaks of foodborne illnesses over the past decade. Before he was sentenced, former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell listened as nine victims testified about the terror and grief caused by tainted peanut butter traced to the company’s plant in southwest Georgia. The lengthy term in part reflects the overwhelming evidence presented by federal prosecutors that Parnell knowingly led a scheme to ship tainted products, as well as the large number of people affected by the outbreak and the financial losses incurred, according to lawyers involved in food-safety cases.

One of the victims was 10-year-old Jacob Hurley, who was just 3 when he was stricken by salmonella from peanut butter crackers that left him vomiting and rushing to the toilet for nearly two weeks. Louis Sands’ sentence should serve as a warning to food industry executives. “If people are in the position Parnell was in, maybe they will make a different decision. Randy Napier, whose 80-year-old mother died from salmonella poisoning after eating the company’s peanut butter, said the punishment should “send a message to the other manufacturers” of American foods.

When a jury convicted Parnell and two co-defendants a year ago, experts said it was the first time American food processors had stood trial in a food-poisoning case. A Colorado judge sentenced two brothers to five years’ probation after the pair pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges following a 2011 listeria outbreak linked to their farm’s cantaloupes that resulted in 33 deaths.

Now 10 years old, he told the judge, “I think it’s OK for (Parnell) to spend the rest of his life in prison.” Three deaths linked to the outbreak occurred in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina. In some cases, company officials falsified lab results, stating peanut products were safe to eat when tests showed otherwise, or when products had never been tested at all, according to court papers. Emails prosecutors presented at trial showed that Parnell once directed employees to “turn them loose” after samples of peanuts tested positive for salmonella and then were cleared in another test. Several months before the outbreak, when a final lab test found salmonella, Parnell expressed concern to a Georgia plant manager, writing in an Oct. 6, 2008, email that the delay “is costing us huge $$$$$.” Parnell, who didn’t testify during his trial and stayed silent years ago when called before a congressional hearing, apologized to the courtroom full of victims and their relatives. I’m truly sorry for what happened.” His brother, Michael Parnell, and the plant’s former quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, were also convicted.

Instead, federal prosecutors charged them with defrauding customers who used Peanut Corporation’s peanuts and peanut butter in products from snack crackers to pet food. Parnell told the victims: “I think about you guys every day.” He acknowledged problems at his plant, but did not address emails and company records that showed Parnell knowingly shipped salmonella-tainted peanut butter and faked lab records.

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