In what has been a groundbreaking trial and verdict, the former executive of a peanut company has just been sentenced by a federal judge to 28 years in prison for distributing products that he knew were contaminated.
The 61-year-old man, Stewart Parnell, used to be the chief executive officer of Peanut Corporation of America. He was convicted in Georgia last year by a jury on 72 charges involving distribution of adulterated food, conspiracy and fraud. The company is no longer in business.
Peanut butter produced by PCA was tainted with the deadly salmonella bacteria back in 2008. That outbreak is known to have killed nine people and sickened more than 700 others across the United States. It resulted in one of the largest food recalls in many years, impacting numerous products in which peanuts were used.
The former executive had maintained that he was unaware of the fraud perpetrated by the company. He earlier refused to testify before Congress on the matter. He only recently expressed remorse for the deaths caused by the tainted peanuts.
While Parnell could have faced an 800-year-plus sentence, food safety advocates are still calling the outcome a victory. It's the stiffest penalty ever given an executive for an outbreak of food poisoning, and the first time that one has ever been convicted of a federal felony for introducing contaminated food into the system.
As one attorney who represented some of the victims noted, "Honestly, I think the fact that he was prosecuted at all is a victory for consumers." He added, "This sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through board rooms across the U.S." According to the Food and Drug Administration, over 100,000 people are hospitalized with food-borne illnesses annually, and approximately 3,000 lose their lives to them.
Parnell is not the only one facing prison time for the outbreak. His brother, who is a food broker, was sentenced to 20 years behind bars. A PCA quality manager was sentenced to five years.
Whether this historic verdict leads to greater criminal accountability by food company executives remains to be seen. However, those who are harmed or have lost loved ones due to tainted food can and should explore their legal options for holding those in the food supply chain responsible for their negligence and recklessness.
Source: CNN, "28 years for salmonella: Peanut exec gets groundbreaking sentence," Moni Basu, Sep. 22, 2015