Next Monday, Stewart Parnell, former owner and CEO of Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), will be sentenced for the 76 felonies he was charged with back in 2013. It’s likely Parnell will be sentenced to life in prison, and that the four other defendants involved will also be spending significant time behind bars. The Peanut Corporation of America was headquartered in Virginia, and the trial took place in Georgia, the location of one of PCA’s processing facilities.

Photo/Nodar Kherkheulidze via wikimedia commons
Photo/Nodar Kherkheulidze via wikimedia commons

Between September 2008 and April 2009, the Center for Disease Control recognized 714 victims of Salmonella that were traced back to products originating from the PCA. Nine people died because their symptoms were so severe. However, because the symptoms of Salmonella poisoning are somewhat common, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that for every one case of Salmonella poisoning that gets reported, up to 38 additional cases go unreported.

With an unprecedented number of infected people, PCA launched the single most extensive food recall ever in US history. As of April 2009, it involved 361 companies to recall 3,913 products that used any ingredient originating from one of PCA’s processing facilities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) even had to recall their emergency meals delivered to victims of natural disasters. Because internet was down in some locations, FEMA officials were forced to go door to door to warn the public about the contaminated products on the recall list.

A number of victims placed their trust in the hands of Marler Clark LLP, a Seattle-based law firm specializing in cases relating to foodborne illness. It was Bill Marler, of The Food Safety Law Firm, who represented Brianne Kiner in the historic Jack-in-the-Box lawsuit. Kiner was the most severely injured survivor of the E.coli outbreak in the early 1990s.

“The PCA Salmonella outbreak is nothing short of tragic. I feel deeply for all the families whose lives have been damaged by one man’s greed,” said Marler, who has spent his career advocating for food safety legislation. “Unbelievably,” Marler added, “Parnell chose to allow Salmonella to enter interstate commerce. He knew he was putting people’s lives at risk.”

While some foodborne illness outbreaks can be caused mistakenly, this was not the case with the PCA. Parnell intentionally sent potentially lethal food products to the schools, hospitals, and shelves of the public, in the interest of saving money.

Parnell had previously stated, “we have never found any salmonella at all. no salmonella has been found anywhere in our products or in our plant.” However, the FDA found that his statement had been proven false at least twelve times between 2007- 2008. Furthermore, despite the product being contaminated, Parnell authorized all shipments to be sent out into the public domain.

But the most crucial piece of evidence came from an email response to an employee notifying Parnell of yet another contamination of a peanut product. He replied, “I go thru this about once a week. i will hold my breath…again”. He subsequently told the managers to “turn them loose”, referring to the contaminated products bound for public consumption. To destroy the product and to clean the facility cost more than Parnell was willing to pay.

He violated Section 402 (a)(4) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) by packing food in unsanitary conditions that may be injurious to human health, or preparing food that contains poisonous substances. For this, Parnell could spend years in jail in addition to millions in fines.

Moreover, he violated Section 906 of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) by falsely certifying the accuracy of company financial statements, which alone could send Parnell to federal prison for 10 years, along with up to $1 million in fines.

After a grueling four year investigation led by the FBI, a 76-count felony indictment was found against the defendant in February 2013. With a trial by jury beginning in July 2014, Parnell scavenged to find a defense for his charges of fraud, conspiracy, and selling misbranded food into interstate commerce. The defense used less than one day to present their case.

It is likely that Stewart Parnell will be sentenced with life in prison for charges of fraud and conspiracy, among others. The four other defendants involved with PCA management will also be sentenced on September 21. Each defendant is predicted to be sentenced to anywhere between 8-22 years in prison for intentionally, knowingly, and willingly poisoning their customers.

Source: Marler Clark LLP