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article imageEx-peanut company CEO sentenced to 28 years in salmonella coverup

By Megan Hamilton     Sep 23, 2015 in Crime
Albany - Stewart Parnell, the former CEO of the now-defunct Peanut Company of America, was sentenced Monday to 28 years in prison for his role in a deadly salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds between 2008 and 2009.
The sentence is the strictest punishment ever handed down for a food-related crime, The Washington Post reports. Prosecutors called for life in prison for Parnell, 61, and the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands may amount to just that.
"These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit and to protect profits notwithstanding the known risks," Sands said, per the Associated Press. "This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed."
There was plenty of emotion on both sides of the aisle following Monday's sentencing hearing in a federal courthouse in Albany, Ga., the Post reports.
Families of loved ones poisoned by salmonella-tainted products from Peanut Corp. urged the judge to impose the stiffest possible sentence. One victim, Jacob Hurley, who was only three when he became seriously ill after eating peanut butter crackers, said it would be fine with him for Parnell "to spend the rest of his life in prison," press reports said. Jeff Almer, whose 72-year-old mother died during the outbreak, echoed the same sentiment.
"You took my mom," he told Parnell.
Randy Napier lost his 80-year-old mother to salmonella after she ate the company's peanut butter, The Associated Press reports. He said the punishment should "send a message to the other manufacturers" of American foods.
On the other side of the aisle, his mother defended his character, and his daughter described him as a loving grandfather who put others before himself. His son pleaded with the judge to "please show my father mercy when considering his sentencing," a local reporter tweeted from the hearing, the Post reports.
More than 700 people were sickened after eating peanut butter or other products made at the company's plant in rural Georgia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Following a series of major outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in the past decade, the government has enacted stricter food safety laws, and Parnell's sentencing reflects this. The lengthy term highlights the overwhelming evidence presented by federal prosecutors that suggests Parnell allegedly took part in the scheme to ship the tainted products, as well as the large number of people affected in the outbreak and the resulting financial losses that were incurred, said lawyers involved in food-safety cases.
Prior to this, the toughest punishment handed down in at least a half century for crimes connected to a major outbreak was by a federal judge in Iowa last April, legal experts said. The judge sentenced the owner of a large egg producer to three months in prison for their role in a 2010 salmonella outbreak, in which thousands of people were sickened and sparked a nationwide recall. In another case a judge in Colorado sentenced two brothers to five years' probation after they pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in a 2011 listeria outbreak linked to their farm's cantaloupes that lead to the deaths of 33 people, WSJ reports.
In the PCA case, prosecutors introduced internal emails that they said showed Parnell and his company hid the fact that the firm's products were contaminated with salmonella for years. In some instances, company officials falsified lab results, saying peanut products were safe to eat when tests showed they were contaminated, or when products had never even been tested at all, court papers said.
One of the emails demonstrated Parnell's anxiety after he found out that an order of peanut products would be held up because test results weren't ready yet.
"S--t. just ship it," he wrote, court documents say. "I cannot afford to loose [sic] another customer."
Monday's sentence is an example of the Justice Department's "forceful actions" against an individual or company who "compromises the safety of America's food supply for financial gain," said acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery.
Indeed, Parnell was facing as much as 803 years in prison, and while his sentence fell far short of that, food safety advocates are hailing this as a huge step in the right direction.
"Honestly, I think the fact that he was prosecuted at all is a victory for consumers," Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who represented a number of the victims in the Peanut Corp. outbreak, told CNN.
"Although his sentence is less than the maximum, it is the longest sentence ever in a food poisoning case," Marler said. "This sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through board rooms across the U.S."
While Parnell's sentencing is a relief for Almer, he has plenty of mixed emotions as well.
"I am satisfied there were convictions and now jail terms," he said. "But less so in that all this could have been avoided."
Early on, when he was called to testify before Congress, Parnell invoked the Fifth Amendment, but he has never spoken publicly about the tragedy until Monday, when he expressed remorse in the courtroom.
His lawyer, Scott Austin, said Parnell is devastated by the lengthy sentence. Parnell has consistently maintained that his company engaged in commercial fraud but that he wasn't aware of it, CNN reports.
Parnell's sentencing will make corporate executives think twice before engaging in wrongful activities, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor.
"I don't have the impression that Parnell set out to kill people," Tobias said. "He just ran his business in a way that caused a lot of injury and some deaths. The sentence was appropriate and maybe it should have been stiffer."
Kevin Pollack, owner of StericycleExpertSOLUTIONS, which helps handle brand recalls, said various foods are recalled each year due to bacterial contaminations, which can lead to illness. He says the PCA case is historic because a corporate executive was held accountable with a prison term 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," he said.
Michael Parnell, (Stewart Parnell's brother) worked as a food broker and provided Kellogg's with peanut paste from PCA, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the deadly outbreak, The Associated Press reports.
Mary Wilkerson, the plant's former quality control manager, was sentenced to five years in prison.
More about Salmonella, salmonella deaths, peanut company, stewart parnell, CEO
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