October 15, 2015, Trial News
Corporate official sentenced to 28 years in prison for role in salmonella outbreak
The head of a peanut processing company was sentenced on Sept. 21 to an unprecedented 28 years in prison for his role in a 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds more nationwide. Stewart Parnell, the former owner, president, and CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), was found guilty in Georgia federal district court for violations of federal law, including conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, sale of misbranded food, and introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce.
The head of a peanut processing company was sentenced on Sept. 21 to an unprecedented 28 years in prison for his role in a 2009 salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds more nationwide. Stewart Parnell, the former owner, president, and CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), was found guilty in Georgia federal district court for violations of federal law, including conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, sale of misbranded food, and introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. Parnell was indicted in February 2013, and was found guilty of all but one of 68 felony counts in September 2014.
Parnell and other PCA executives were accused of knowingly shipping salmonella-contaminated products and then covering up the truth when those products were linked to hundreds of foodborne illness cases. At trial, the United States offered evidence that Parnell fabricated documents stating that PCA’s products had been tested and were pathogen free—even though no testing had been done—and that Parnell and others misled FDA officials investigating one of the PCA factories after the outbreak. In deciding Parnell’s sentence, the court considered the multimillion-dollar losses to businesses, harm to hundreds of victims, and Parnell’s knowledge that his conduct could cause injury or death.
While there were more than 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning related to PCA’s products, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that more than 20,000 people were likely affected. Testing linked the salmonella in PCA’s products to the salmonella strain that caused the illnesses, and along with other evidence, led the court to conclude that PCA was the source of the outbreak and Parnell’s criminal actions were a proximate cause. Parnell’s brother, Michael, worked as a broker for PCA and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mary Wilkerson, who was a quality assurance manager, was sentenced to five years.
According to plaintiff attorneys, the case facts and outcome are rare. Scott Harford, an attorney in New York City, said, “What set this case apart was the overwhelming evidence presented by the prosecutors at trial. They had 45 witnesses with more than 1,000 documents that painted a clear picture that Stewart Parnell knew about the contamination. And, despite this knowledge, he still ordered PCA to continue shipping salmonella-tainted peanut paste used in the manufacturing of a number of food products.”
While Parnell’s sentencing is a wake-up call to other food executives about the risks of selling and distributing contaminated food, it is only one part of the fight to ensure a safe food supply. Brendan Flaherty, an attorney in Minneapolis who works on foodborne illness cases, agreed that criminal cases like Parnell’s are uncommon and that the civil justice system is the primary forum for advancing food safety. “Often, the dangerous and potentially deadly decisions are far more subtle and harder to detect. It seems to take hard-fought litigation to challenge the culture of a corporation and ultimately change it.”
Flaherty also said that the regulatory system is not keeping pace with the need to protect the food supply. “I believe that we are making strong progress with the Food Safety and Modernization Act but much more needs to be done,” Flaherty said. “Funding regulatory agencies is crucially important, and a less-talked-about issue is funding of state and local health departments across the country to detect and trace back outbreaks to their source.”
Bernard Daskal, an attorney in New York City, said, “When it comes to foodborne illness, the passage of new regulations and the vigor of their enforcement depends on the prevailing political climate. The one constant consumers can rely on is the vigilance of the civil justice system. At the end of the day, the threat of civil liability is what will compel the food industry to take meaningful steps to protect consumers from foodborne illness.”
Food contamination and foodborne illness are growing problems in the United States: Every year, foodborne illnesses sicken millions of Americans and cost the economy billions of dollars. Salmonella poisoning accounts for 1.4 million illnesses and about 400 deaths annually, according to CDC estimates. There have been dozens of food recalls and contaminated-food-related illnesses so far this year. A recent outbreak involved tainted cucumbers that have led to four deaths and more than 730 illnesses in 35 states.
For more information about food safety, read AAJ’s report, “Food Safety and the Civil Justice System.”