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In Groundbreaking Case, Peanut Company Owner Sentenced to Prison for Knowingly Shipping Tainted Food

Sep 24, 2015

On Monday, a federal judge imposed a 28-year prison sentence on Stewart Parnell, CEO of the now-defunct Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), who had been convicted of knowingly shipping tainted food from his company's facilities.

This is the harshest penalty ever for a corporate executive in a food poisoning outbreak, CNN reports. Unless Parnell wins an appeal, he is expected to have to serve out most of his term.

Parnell's brother, food broker Michael Parnell, received a 20-year sentence; Mary Wilkerson, the plant's quality assurance manager, was sentenced to five years in prison. Stewart Parnell was convicted a year ago on 72 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce, according to CNN.

The deadly 2008 salmonella outbreak, which killed nine people and sickened 714 in 46 states, was traced back to peanut butter manufactured by PCA. It was the deadliest salmonella outbreak in recent years and resulted in one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, foods including not just peanut butter, but Keebler crackers, Famous Amos cookies, and airline snack packets, CNN reports.

Salmonella infection causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, within 12 to 72 hours after someone has ingested tainted food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the illness typically lasts four to seven days and most people recover without treatment. But for some, the illness can be serious enough to require hospitalization and the infection can spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other parts of the body, requiring treatment with antibiotics. Children under five, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems are at greatest risk for serious salmonella infection.

Before this trial, no corporate executive had been convicted of federal felony charges related to food poisoning. Though Parnell did not receive the maximum 803-year sentence, food safety advocates nonetheless hailed the lesser sentence as a big step forward, according to CNN. A food-safety attorney who represented several of the outbreak victims, said he considered it a victory that Parnell was prosecuted at all.

Parnell invoked the Fifth Amendment when called to testify before Congress and he maintain that his company engaged in commercial fraud but that he was not aware of it. He had not spoken publicly about the fatal outbreak until Monday's sentencing, when he expressed remorse. Before Parnell's sentencing, family members of victims sent U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands a letter asking for $500,000 in restitution that would go to food safety groups.

Kevin Pollack, whose company Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS handles brand recalls, said the PCA case is historic because a corporate executive was held accountable for knowingly distributing tainted food. "Manufacturers already pay attention, but they will take note that if they were to fail, there can be serious ramifications," Pollack said. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that 48 million people-one in six Americans-suffer from foodborne illnesses annually. More than 100,000 people are hospitalized and about 3,000 die from infections, according to the CDC. The federal government says these infections are largely preventable. In 2011, in response to the PCA salmonella outbreak, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping reform in food safety laws in 70 years, according to the FDA.

The sentence that was handed down today means that executives will no longer be able to hide behind the corporate veil," said U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore of the Middle District of Georgia.

At trial last year, prosecutors called 45 witnesses and presented more than 1,000 documents including months of emails, lab results and financial records to make their case that Parnell knew about the contamination, covered it up and ordered PCA to continue shipments of salmonella-tainted peanut paste used to manufacture a variety of products.

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