A federal judge hit the former owner and chief executive of a peanut processing company with a 28-year prison sentence Monday for a number of crimes related to a massive 2009 Salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 700 people in nearly every state and killed nine.
For Stewart Parnell, the 61-year-old head of Peanut Corporation of America, the punishment amounts to a virtual life sentence. Many family members of victims who died as a result of the Salmonella outbreak were in the Albany, Ga., federal court for the sentencing, urging the judge to impose the harshest sentence possible.
Mr. Parnell’s brother, Michael Parnell, who brokered the company’s contaminated peanut products, received a 20-year sentence for his role in the deadly outbreak.
Mary Wilkerson, the former quality control manager for Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, Ga., plant, received five years in prison.
The sentences could be the harshest ever handed down to executives who put lives at risk by knowingly disregarding food safety laws.
The three were convicted last year after investigations led by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) connected the Salmonella illnesses to the Lynchburg, Va.-based company’s processing facility in Georgia.
Federal investigators found a plant where roaches, rodents, mold, a leaking roof, holes in the walls, dirty equipment, and other unsanitary conditions and practices proved to be a breeding ground for Salmonella bacteria. Authorities also found emails and company documents showing that batches of peanut butter products tested positive for Salmonella contamination but were shipped out to food manufacturers anyway.
Records also showed that some batches were shipped without having undergone the required testing. Fake lab records saying the batches were free from food-borne bacteria accompanied the untested products.
A federal jury convicted Stewart Parnell on 71 criminal counts that included knowingly shipping contaminated food across state lines, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and wire fraud.
The Salmonella-contaminated peanut products went out to scores of manufacturers that incorporated them into cookies, crackers, candy bars, ice cream, cereal, peanut butter, and other products, prompting a multitude of recalls and hundreds of millions of dollars in financial losses.