- Getty Images/Mark Wilson / Staff
A CEO who sold peanut butter he knew to be contaminated with salmonella, a group of bacteria that’s one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the US, has been sentenced to 28 years in prison.
The poisoned peanut butter sickened hundreds of people and killed nine.
A devastating outbreak of salmonella poisoning in 2008 and 2009 that sickened more than 700 people across 46 states was traced to Parnell’s southwest Georgia peanut plant, and led to one of the largest food recalls in US history, according to the New York Times.
On Monday, a federal jury convicted Parnell, 61, of knowingly shipping contaminated peanut butter and of faking the results of lab tests for salmonella.
This the harshest punishment ever given to a producer in a food illness case.
Parnell’s brother Michael Parnell, who also worked for the PCA, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for fraud, conspiracy, and selling misbranded food. Mary Wilkerson, the company’s former quality assurance manager, got five years for obstruction of justice.
Parnell apologized to the families of the victims affected by the outbreak, which included an 80-year-old grandmother who died after eating contaminated peanut butter crackers, after listening to their testimony.
“It’s been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family,” Parnell told the judge, according to the Times. “All I can do is come before you and ask for forgiveness from you and the people back here. I’m truly sorry for what happened.”
- Flickr / Anna
This is the first time US food producers have stood trial on criminal charges in a food-poisoning case, according to experts quoted by the Times. Parnell and his colleagues were never charged with killing or sickening anybody, just with “conspiring to defraud” customers.”
Although Parnell was spared the maximum sentence of 803 years in prison, his 28 years basically amounts to a life sentence, according to Parnell’s attorney.
Judge W. Louis Sands explained it this way:
“These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit and to protect profits notwithstanding the known risks” from salmonella. “This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed.”
According to the Times, federal investigation of the peanut plant revealed a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents – ideal conditions for salmonella. Investigators also found emails and records which showed that peanut butter that tested positive for salmonella had been shipped to customers anyway. Some shipments were not tested at all, but were shipped with fake lab records that said they were salmonella-free.
Parnell wrote in one email “shit, just ship it” after he found out that a shipment might get delayed while waiting for the results of salmonella lab tests, according to Wall Street Journal. “I cannot afford to [lose] another customer,” he wrote.
His company went bankrupt after the salmonella outbreak.