“Just ship it.” These three words have come to haunt former Peanut Corporation of America (PCA)owner Stewart Parnell since he sent them in an email to a plant manager in March 2007 concerning tainted peanut products. U.S. prosecuting attorneys brought this statement to light in the opening statements of brothers Stewart and Michael Parnell’s trial concerning the 2009 outbreak of salmonella poisoning linked to their company’s tainted products.
In an unprecedented conviction, a federal jury returned guilty verdicts against two former officials and one broker for the Peanut Corporation of America for the unlawful sale of salmonella-tainted peanuts and peanut products. Both Stewart and Michael Parnell were convicted of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, and the introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce.
Additionally, Stewart Parnell was convicted of the introduction of adulterated food. Both Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson, a former broker for PCA, were convicted of obstruction of justice.
Expert evidence presented at the trial proved that PCA’s tainted products led to the 2009 outbreak of salmonella poisoning that ended with more than 700 reports of sickness and nine deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these numbers mean that more than 22,000 cases likely resulted from the poisoning.
The Parnell brothers and other PCA employees were accused of cutting corners on safety in order to make a profit, specifically by covering up lab results that showed positive tests for salmonella in their peanut products. Former PCA employees testified against the company officials during the trial, reporting filthy conditions in the Georgia plant. Federal inspectors confirmed this, finding roaches, rats, mold, dirt, accumulated grease, bird droppings and a leaky roof during their raid.
Following a seven-week trial in the Middle District of Georgia that included 45 prosecution witness and 1,001 documents of evidence, the convictions of Stewart and Michael Parnell mark the first felony conviction for a company executive in a food safety case.
Attorney General Eric Holder stated, “As this verdict confirms, the salmonella outbreak that caused nationwide panic five years ago was a direct result of the actions of these individuals. This verdict demonstrates that the Department of Justice will never waver in our pursuit of those who break our laws and compromise the safety of America’s food supply for financial gain. All Americans must be able to rely on the safety of the food they purchase. And any individual or company who puts the health of consumers at risk by criminally selling tainted food will be caught, prosecuted, and held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Stewart Parnell’s lawyer has stated that he will appeal the verdict and continue to fight on behalf of the Parnells.