This week’s Department of Justice “Catch of the Week” goes to Stewart Parnell, former owner and president of Peanut Corporation of America. On Monday, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in shipping salmonella-positive peanut products before the results of microbiological testing were received and falsifying microbiological test results. It is the largest criminal sentence ever in a food safety case. Also sentenced to 20 years and 5 years respectively for their role in the misconduct was Mr. Parnell’s brother Michael, who worked on behalf of PCA as a food broker, and Mary Wilkerson, who held various PCA positions including receptionist, office manager and quality assurance manager. See DOJ Press Release.
The government presented evidence at trial to establish the Parnells misled customers about the presence of salmonella in their products by, among other things, fabricating documentation stating the food was free of pathogens when in fact there had been no testing of the food or tests had revealed the presence of pathogens. They also lied to or misled the FDA on the subject. Expert evidence at trial showed that tainted food led to a salmonella outbreak in 2009 with more than 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning in 46 states. According to the CDC, that number translates to more than 22,000 total cases including nine deaths.
In announcing the sentencing, the government made it clear it will not tolerate and will treat very harshly intentional conduct that in any way compromises food safety. Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery stressed that “Americans should be able to trust that the food we buy for ourselves and our families is safe,” and that the government’s prosecution here “is just one more example of the forceful actions that the [government] takes against any individual or company who compromises the safety of America’s food supply for financial gain.” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the DOJ’s Civil Division, echoed this strong sentiment: “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.”
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