Evidence at trial showed tainted food led to Salmonella illnesses in 2009 with more than 700 reported cases in 46 states.
Stewart Parnell, the former owner of the now defunct PCA, was given a 28 year prison sentence. Local media reported his attorney saying they planned to appeal.
His brother, Michael Parnell, who worked at P.P. Sales and was a food broker on behalf of PCA, was sentenced to 20 years.
Mary Wilkerson, who held various positions at PCA’s Blakely, Georgia, plant including receptionist, office manager and quality assurance manager, will serve five years.
Courts willing to act
Rena Steinzor, Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) member scholar and University of Maryland School of Law professor, said the sentence shows the courts are willing to act on defendants who elevate profits over safety.
“Parnell ordered the shipment of peanut paste contaminated by Salmonella that not only killed nine people, but also produced one of the biggest recalls in food safety history," she said.
“His factory was a disgusting place, with broken equipment, a leaking roof, and rodent droppings throughout. Hopefully, this kind of prosecution will motivate the Congress to fully fund FDA efforts to prevent such tragedies.”
The three former employees were found guilty one year ago.
The Parnell brothers were convicted by a federal jury of multiple counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and the sale of misbranded food.
Stewart Parnell was convicted of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce and was found guilty of all but one of the 68 felony counts with which he was charged in February 2013.
He and Mary Wilkerson were also convicted of obstruction of justice.
Consequences for food producers
Stuart Delery, acting associate attorney general, said the sentences demonstrate consequences for those whose criminal actions introduce contaminated food into the marketplace.
“Our prosecution is just one more example of the forceful actions that the Department of Justice, with its agency partners, takes against any individual or company who compromises the safety of America’s food supply for financial gain.”
David Plunkett, CSPI senior food safety attorney, said the sentencing brings to an end the case that began following the massive 2008 Salmonella outbreak linked to PCA’s products.
“To be sure, the long sentences handed down today will not bring back the nine Americans who died after eating contaminated peanut products that Parnell and his co-defendants knowingly marketed, nor will they retroactively undo the sicknesses and hospitalizations of those who survived," he said.
“But they will send a very strong signal to food manufacturers that pursuing profits at the expense of food safety can bring the most severe of consequences.”
In a general position on Salmonella, The American Peanut Council said it has adopted the FDA’s voluntary code of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) that includes recommended operating procedures for peanut processors.
Recommended procedures include regular sampling, testing and verification that microbiological contamination is not present in peanut manufacturing plants.
It said since the 2009 Salmonella outbreak, the industry has worked to improve its food safety knowledge and practices based on the best available science.
Recognizing food safety is not an end point but an evolving process, the industry will continue to improve understanding of and enhance ability to combat Salmonella and other foodborne pathogens, added the association.
“Today’s sentencing sends a powerful message to officials in the food industry that they stand in a special position of trust with the American consumer, and those who put profit above the welfare of their customers and knowingly sell contaminated food will face serious consequences,” said Benjamin Mizer, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.
Michael Moore, US Attorney of the Middle District of Georgia, said: “The tragedy of this case is that at a peanut processing plant in Middle Georgia, protecting the public lost out to increasing of profits.
“This case was never just about shipping tainted peanut product; it was about making sure individual wrong doers were held accountable and the losses suffered by the victims and their families are never forgotten.”
Former PCA operations manager Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgore defrauded PCA customers and jeopardized the quality and purity of peanut products, according to evidence at the trial.
They are scheduled to be sentenced on October 1, in Albany.