Former peanut company CEO gets virtual life sentence in salmonella case

Discussion
Sep 22, 2015

Stewart Parnell, the 61-year-old former CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America, was sentenced to 28 years in jail for charges that he and other executives at the company knowingly shipped peanut butter tainted with salmonella in 2008 and 2009. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tied the tainted peanut butter to 714 illnesses and nine deaths.

Mr. Parnell was convicted of 71 counts including the introduction of adulterated food, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Two codefendants, Michael Parnell, the plant’s manager, and Mary Wilkerson, a former quality control manager, were sentenced to 20 and five years respectively for their parts in the case.

Federal investigators discovered emails and company records that showed positive lab tests for salmonella. An on-site inspection of the Peanut Corporation of America’s facility in Blakely, GA found evidence of rats and roaches as well as a leaky roof, all known factors in the spread of salmonella. Some batches of peanuts were never tested and shipped with fake lab tests, according to prosecutors.

The punishment handed down against Mr. Parnell is the most severe in any food safety case in the U.S., according to the Justice Department.

CDC Salmonella chart

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – May, 2009





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At his sentencing hearing, Mr. Parnell offered his first public words of apology for the harm done to the victims and their families in the case. Previously, he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights when he appeared before a congressional subcommittee and he did not take the stand in the case. Mr. Parnell’s lawyers attempted to block victims and their relatives from speaking before he was sentenced.

"This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family. I’m truly, truly sorry for what’s happened," he told victims and their relatives who were in the court.

According to the CDC, roughly one in six Americans (48 million) become ill through foodborne diseases every year. Of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

Salmonella is the most common foodborne illness. Roughly 1.2 million people became ill as a result of ingesting foods tainted with salmonella in 2013 resulting in 450 deaths, according to government figures. The number of cases of salmonella poisoning decreased nine percent in 2013, but has been essentially flat going back to 2006.

Do you think the criminal charges and sentence were appropriate in the case against Stewart Parnell? Will the conviction and prison sentences handed down against Mr. Parnell and his codefendants result in a safer food supply?

Braintrust
"You know, as one of the peanut salmonella survivors, and reading that he knew there was a problem, I think the sentence is fine. I didn’t die, but taking a couple of courses of flagyl ain’t easy."
"It’s a harsh sentence, but time to get our justice system in balance and perhaps this is a start. Nine people died — if he had shot them and injured 714 others, what would the sentence have been?"
"We can promote higher values and hope to rise above but we sometimes fail. To knowingly and purposely take action that cause someone else’s misery or death is a grievous violation of the trust we place in others."

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22 Comments on "Former peanut company CEO gets virtual life sentence in salmonella case"

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Paula Rosenblum
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

You know, as one of the peanut salmonella survivors, and reading that he knew there was a problem, I think the sentence is fine. I didn’t die, but taking a couple of courses of flagyl ain’t easy.

I think it’s about time the courts issued more than the equivalent of a parking ticket for this sort of negligence and malfeasance. There are too many tainted products in the marketplace every year.

I’m sure that sounds cold, but something has to change. We can be better than we’ve been.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
2 years 2 months ago

It’s about time white collar criminals were treated on something closer to equivalent terms with blue collar criminals. The email trail in this case showed Mr. Parnell said “ship it” when test results on peanut butter batches were unclear. It’s a harsh sentence, but time to get our justice system in balance and perhaps this is a start. Nine people died — if he had shot them and injured 714 others, what would the sentence have been?

Mohamed Amer
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

There is no such thing as a strict self-regulating market. Our proclivity to pursue greed or shun fear drives much of what most humans do. We can promote higher values and hope to rise above but we sometimes fail.

To knowingly and purposely take action that cause someone else’s misery or death is a grievous violation of the trust we place in others. I can’t speak to the appropriateness of the sentencing and I doubt that it will provide any deterrence to those whose decision calculus is singularly grounded in economic rationality.

Roger Saunders
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

Without having followed the case consistently over the years, nor having sat in a jury box on the case, it might be meaningless to weigh in on an opinion about the appropriate level of the sentence. The sentence seems extraordinary. However, nine lives were ended, based on the case background.

With the onerous 28 year sentence, this judge’s decision is likely to be reversed in some partial way.

The case should resonate for all who are involved in foodservice areas to be continuously vigilant in terms of food safety and quality — that includes manufacturers and retailers.

David Livingston
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

That’s a tough call but I suppose yes, the sentence was appropriate. Not so sure we will have a safer food supply. I doubt that Stewart Parnell was a serial killer out to murder people by having them eat peanut butter. What bothers me are those who do want to intentionally kill people by poisoning our food supply and I doubt prison is any kind of deterrent for them.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

As I understand the facts in the case, nine people died. Hundreds more suffered … all as a result of criminal malfeasance at a very deliberate level.

Those deaths are not any less significant because the cause was salmonella. The point is that they could have been prevented with appropriate actions. The point of the justice system is accountability for one’s actions, and the punishment should be commensurate with the seriousness of the crime.

In this case, the sentences seem very commensurate for what occurred as a result of Mr. Parnell and his co-defendants’ actions and lack of responsibility.

Roy White
Guest
Roy White
2 years 2 months ago

He killed a number of people. He damaged the public’s trust in the American food distribution system. With malice aforethought, he went around the system to get the rating he wanted even though he knew it was false. The sentence of 28 years might not be enough.

Carole Meagher
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

Yes, along with the politicians who voted to cut funding for FDA inspections that would have prevented this tragedy in the first place.

Warren Thayer
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

Al McClain nailed it with, “Nine people died — if he had shot them and injured 714 others, what would the sentence have been?” And I may be alone here, but I do think this will have a deterrent effect on at least some people who might otherwise decide to “ship it” when they know better.

David Dorf
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

Yes, the sentence was appropriate given the facts uncovered. CEOs are responsible for their companies’ actions, and ignorance is never a valid excuse. I’m tired of hearing companies settle these cases with no persons being held accountable. When people know they’ll be held accountable, they’ll make better decisions.

Donna Brockway
Guest
Donna Brockway
2 years 2 months ago

Yes, he knowingly killed nine people, so the sentence is correct. And I believe this will give many executives in the food business pause before making such deadly decisions when it comes to food safety.

Shep Hyken
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

Mr. Parnell knew there was tainted merchandise that could cause sickness and death, and he covered it up. Guilty as charged. The public needs to trust the food manufacturers, distributors, retailers, etc. Perhaps this sentence will send a message that there is a price to pay for cutting corners in an attempt to skirt regulations and standards.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

What makes this case different is the apparent knowledge they were shipping infected product. Knowing they were doing something wrong and shipping the product anyway deserves the sentence. One case will not have any real effect on the food supply. The U.S. food supply chain is very complex and safe. It will continue to be so into the near future. There are few cases where someone shipped bad product on purpose. Suppliers want to only ship good product so they will receive the next order from the customer. Most companies that ship infected product are forced out of business and that is how it should be. You only get one chance.

Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
2 years 2 months ago

I am OK with this sentence based on the facts of this case as I understand them. However, a quick look at the CDC website suggests that a far greater number of cases of food borne illnesses and deaths here have been from food products imported from other countries such as Asia and Latin America where conducting investigations and “punishing” companies in American courts is far more difficult. I do worry a little that officers and boards of some American food manufacturers may take the wrong lesson from Parnell’s jail sentence and decide to ship even more American jobs overseas.

Daryle Hier
Guest
Daryle Hier
2 years 2 months ago

Not knowing all the facts, nor having any intimate knowledge, I couldn’t say whether it was an appropriate sentence or not. He didn’t purposefully try to kill people, but certainly negligence and malfeasance surely occurred. Given essentially a life sentence though is probably over the top. I’d be surprised if this sentence wasn’t overturned or reduced. Hopefully this is a warning though for those executives who might think saving money outweighs public safety.

Lee Kent
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

In this day and age, he is the fool who thinks he will not get caught. And that is exactly what happened.

He said “ship it” without a care that someone would get hurt. He just didn’t want to lose another customer. Oh me, oh my!

While I don’t believe in too much government or Big Brother, something failed big time here. The charges were spot on!

For my 2 cents.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

From a purely cold and calculated free market business perspective this fool simply left a trail and got caught. It will turn up the heat for a while but not for long. The reason for a short-lived ramp up of policing efforts is the potential for initiating ramifications that are farther reaching. I am speaking of the thousands of violations that go on every day and have done so for decades. There really isn’t much to cheer for here. In fact we should now be aware of what it takes to cheat and get away with it and move to correct the problems holding the problem creators as solely responsible.

Carlos Arambula
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

I believe the charges and sentence was appropriate. There is a reason for food safety laws and I’m glad the government is enforcing them. I would expect all C-level management in food manufacturing to take notice and enhance their current processes. I also hope the public is paying attention and considers the alternative to loose enforcement and less oversight.

Paul Stanton
Guest
Paul Stanton
2 years 2 months ago

Yes, I agree. Hopefully, better controls will be put into place to protect consumers.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

Simply put: it is time that someone got more than a slap on the wrist for the endangerment they caused.

Dave Wendland
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

There should be no free passes when someone knowingly puts others in harm’s way. I believe the penalty fits the crime (and yes, this was criminal!).

Kim Stuart
Guest
Kim Stuart
2 years 2 months ago

Knowingly doing this—knowing the plant was a rodent-ridden disaster, knowing the food was tainted, and knowing that food was shipping with falsified test results—yes, I think the punishment fits the crime. People died, as a direct result of his negligence, so perhaps he’s getting off somewhat lightly, though he will die in jail.

As the CEO, he had the ultimate responsibility, and should be blamed. This was not a mistake, this was a deliberate act of criminal negligence.

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Braintrust
"You know, as one of the peanut salmonella survivors, and reading that he knew there was a problem, I think the sentence is fine. I didn’t die, but taking a couple of courses of flagyl ain’t easy."
"It’s a harsh sentence, but time to get our justice system in balance and perhaps this is a start. Nine people died — if he had shot them and injured 714 others, what would the sentence have been?"
"We can promote higher values and hope to rise above but we sometimes fail. To knowingly and purposely take action that cause someone else’s misery or death is a grievous violation of the trust we place in others."

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