The former owner of one of the nation’s largest peanut processing operations was sentenced today to the heaviest prison sentence ever given for knowingly selling pathogen-tainted food.
The U.S. Justice Department had urged that Stewart Parnell be imprisoned for life after being found guilty of more than 70 felonies. All counts dealt with his concealing the knowledge that salmonella was found in testing many of the peanut products produced by his now bankrupted Peanut Corp. of America. But, this afternoon, Federal Judge Louis Sands ordered the 61-year-old man to serve 28-years behind bars.
“These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit and to protect profits not withstanding the known risks (from the deadly pathogen,”) Sands said in news reports. “This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed.”
Physicians and investigators from the Centers for Disease Control confirmed nine deaths and more than 700 people sickened from salmonella-laced peanut products which laboratory analysis confirmed came from Parnell’s operation.
One of the criminal investigators from the Food and Drug Administration who worked for more then two years gathering evidence for federal prosecutors told me this afternoon he could not comment on the record. Privately, he said that the stiff sentence should make it easier to enforce the nation’s food safety laws.
Documents from the FDA show that for the most part, the typical outcome for food safety criminal convictions is usually counted in months or suspended sentences.
“I think the fact that he was prosecuted at all is a victory for consumers,” said Bill Marler, the Seattle-based food safety lawyer who represented many of the people infected by Parnell’s salmonella
“Although, his sentence is less than the maximum, it is the longest sentence ever in a food poisoning case,” said Marler soon after the sentencing was announced.
“This sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through corporate board rooms across the U.S.”