A year ago this week, the 35-day-long federal trial of Stewart Parnell and several of his employees at Peanut Corp. of American ended. Parnell was found guilty of 70 felony counts,including introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud or mislead.
The federal government blamed Parnell’s products for sickening more than 700 people with Salmonella Typhimurium and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the deaths of nine others. The CDC also estimated that the actual number of people sickened by the salmonella likely exceeded 20,000.
U.S. District Judge Louis Sands is not bound to follow the sentencing recommendation of imprisonment for life in the 40-page U.S. Probation Office report. However, the judge said that for the 70 felonies Parnell could face more than 800 years in prison.
During the morning session today, media reports said that nine victims or victims or their family members called for the stiffest sentence possible. Members of Parnell’s family, including his mother, asked the judge for or leniency.
The sentencing determination is based – in most cases – on the number of actual victims and the monetary losses to businesses allegedly harmed by the criminal actions. Parnell’s lawyers insist that the government figures on which the sentence recommendations were based is inaccurate and should be ignored.
Obviously the human toll was enormous, but hundreds of companies that used Parnell’s peanuts – from mom-and-pop businesses making nut-covered caramel apples to the global, multi-billion-dollar cereal giant Kelllogg – spent well over $200 million to recall the dangerous merchandise that they made using PCA’s peanuts. The nuts – or more accurately legumes – were sold roasted, blanched, in paste and butter, granulated and otherwise manipulated in Parnell’s plants in Virginia and Texas, as well as his Blakely, Ga. operation, which was just 50 miles from the federal courthouse in Albany, Ga. where today’s hearing is continuing.
The graphic testimony of the filthy condition of PCA’s plants was enough to make lovers of PB and J sandwiches go with the jelly alone. The federal indictments presented documentation that Parnell and some of his top managers knew that they were shipping either contaminated or untested products throughout the marketplace.
“Put simply, the Parnells defrauded their customers into believing that their food was safe to eat; it wasn’t. It contained a pathogen that could – indeed did – put people in the hospital or kill them. And, the Parnells sold truckloads of this product, every week, week after week,” said the sentencing report.
Salmonella is a bacterial pathogen that is especially life-threatening to infants, the elderly, young children and people with weakened immune systems.
The government said “once all of the PCA products had been recalled, the outbreak stopped.”
Felony violations under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act are punishable by years in jail and millions in fines or both. They include adulterating or misbranding a food or food product and putting it into interstate commerce. The key to most criminal investigations is allegations or proof that the corporate parties knowingly committed an unlawful act with the intent to defraud or mislead. Yet stiff sentences are rarely imposed.
Inspectors from FDA’s understaffed Office of Criminal Investigation tell me that their Investigations into food production and processing operations have found – to the surprise of no one in the industry – that shortcuts in safety processes, inspections and quality allow the introduction of deadly pathogens and are usually motivated by profit. The investigators say that many business executives they encounter insist they work with low profit margins on their products and are willing to risk ignoring the safeguards.
However, food safety activists say a sentence as stiff the one recommended for Parnell could, in the long run, save lives because it would indicate to the food industry that the government is serious about safety.
It has long been believed by those involved with all aspects of public health that the government – in far too many incidents – will do little or nothing until bodies can be counted and the public outrage is palpable.
Bill Marler, one of the nation’s most active and outspoken food safety lawyers, has represented many of the victims of the pathogen-laced peanuts as well as dozens of other widespread outbreaks. Food scientists and forensic experts working with the Seattle-based lawyer did much of the initial investigation that showed almost immediately the enormous scope of Parnell’s salmonella outbreak.
Over the years Marler said he’s encountered many cases which deserved long prison sentences, yet the people responsible for the crimes received just a fine and a suspended sentence.
“Hit or miss enforcement is not the way to ensure the practice of doing it right,” he said.
“It is time for prosecutors to set forth clear guidelines for who is to be prosecuted and who is not. People and corporations should know what the rules are and how they are going to be enforced. If actual enforcement and the possibility of significant sentences are on the table and acknowledged by players at all levels, our food supply will be safer.”
Stewart Parnell’s brother Michael was found guilty of 29 counts and could face a 20 year sentence. Mary Wilkerson, a former quality-assurance manager could receive 10 years in prison. They will be sentenced later.