A federal judge in Georgia sentenced former peanut company executive Stewart Parnell to 28 years in a federal prison for his role in the salmonella-related outbreak that killed nine, and sickened hundreds more. This is the longest prison sentence ever handed down for a food-related illness in U.S. history.
Parnell headed up the Peanut Corporation of America for decades, which claimed to be “The Processor of the World's Finest Peanut Products.” However, even though his own company's testing revealed salmonella contamination on multiple occasions, Parnell approved shipments of the potentially dangerous products. Then in early 2009, hundreds of people started getting sick across the country in a salmonella outbreak that was traced to Parnell's peanut products.
Federal investigators looking into the outbreak found evidence of roaches, rodents, mold and leaking facilities at a Peanut Corporation plant in Georgia. However, the most damning evidence came by way of emails and records which showed Parnell and other company officials were aware of the salmonella lab results, and shipped out the products anyway, adding false lab records to show negative salmonella results. According to emails uncovered by investigators, Parnell complained to a Georgia plant manager that the delays related to positive salmonella tests were costing them a lot of money.
Deaths related to the salmonella outbreak included three in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina. As many as 714 other people were taken ill as a result, which led to one of the largest food recalls in the country's history.
Last September, a federal jury found Parnell guilty on more than 70 criminal counts, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and introduction of adulterated foods. Before the recent sentencing proceedings, relatives of some of those who died got a chance to address Parnell. “I really struggled with trying to forgive this guy, because he claims no responsibility whatsoever,” said Jeff Almer, whose 72-year-old mother was one of the victims. “We've gone past the point of forgiveness. A strong sentence is what he deserves.”
Parnell could have faced as much as 803 years in federal prison, according to calculations made by Judge W. Louis Sands. Parnell's attorneys called such a extensive sentencing possibility too harsh, especially in comparison to other food company executives who've seen much more moderate penalties. However, some of the people impacted by the outbreak are happy to see Parnell facing the stiffest penalties. Jacob Hurley, now 10-years-old, was only 3 when he was sickened by salmonella from peanut butter crackers. Hurley candidly told the judge, “I think it's okay for him to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Ultimately, Parnell avoided the harshest penalties when Judge Sands handed down a 28-year sentence. Although, since Parnell is 61-years-old, his sentence could effectively be the same as a life term. Parnell's brother and a former quality control manager were also sentenced for their role in the food-borne illness case. Given the heavy sentences, the two brothers also had to surrender their passports, as the judge deemed they could be a flight risk.