Stewart Parnell, the former owner of the Peanut Corporation of America, is scheduled to be sentenced today for his role in a salmonella outbreak that started in 2008. According to health officials, the outbreak killed nine people and sickened 714 people in 46 states. The sentencing is being conducted Judge W. Louis Sands in U.S. District Court in Albany, Georgia.
Peanut Corporation of America was identified as the source of a massive salmonella outbreak that was first detected in 2008. As part of its operations, the company sent peanuts and peanut butter to a variety of food manufacturers and distributors. During the case, evidence was presented that Parnell and the other defendants fabricated certificates of analysis (COA) summarizing lab results regarding pathogens in food. The defendants were also charged with conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, and obstruction of justice, amongst other charges.
Parnell was found guilty of 70 felony counts, including faking results of lab tests. He faces a sentence of 9,636 months, or more than 800 years, after being convicted by a federal jury of knowingly shipping tainted peanut butter to Kellogg and other companies. This would effectively be a life sentence for the 61-year-old Parnell. It would be the most severe penalty ever given to a person involved in a food safety case. The judge is expected to uphold a lengthy sentence.
Parnell is the first executive to be convicted of a federal felony for a foodborne illness case. Parnell’s brother, Michael, a food broker, and the quality control manager of the plant in Blakely, Georgia, Mary Wilkerson were also found guilty in the case. Michael faces 19 to 24 years in prison while Mary faces five years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne diseases. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die. There were 818 distinct foodborne disease outbreaks recorded in 2013.
In the last three years, there have been several major cases involving foodborne outbreaks where U.S. prosecutors have achieved convictions. In 2014, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen of Jensen Farms were convicted for their role in a cantaloupe listeria outbreak. In 2015, Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster of Quality Egg LLC were sentenced for a 2010 salmonella outbreak.