The US Probation Office has recommended a sentence of life in prison for Stewart Parnell, the former president of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), for his responsibility in a salmonella incident that was traced to his company’s products. The 2008 outbreak was one of the largest in history, killing at least nine and sickening over 20,000 people. The source of the illness was ultimately determined to be tainted peanut butter and paste products from PCA, resulting in a massive recall.
Following a five-year investigation by the Food and Drug Administration, Parnell, his brother Michael, and PCA’s former quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson were found guilty of a wide array of charges last September, including fraud, conspiracy, and the selling of misbranded and adulterated food into interstate commerce. Documents produced during the trial conclusively proved that Parnell had been fully aware of contamination issues within PCA’s facilities, but was ultimately more interested in covering up existing problems than in correcting them. Included in the evidence were his instructions to ship questionable material even after being informed it was probably contaminated, as well as revelations that Michael was regularly forging certificates of analysis so that the company’s tainted products would appear to have passed safety inspections.
If judge W. Louis Sands follows the Probation Office’s recommendations (which also include minimums of 17.5 years for Michael and 8 years for Wilkerson) at Parnell’s sentencing this coming September 14, it would mark the most severe penalty ever imposed in a tainted food case. Regardless of whether Parnell is sentenced to life in prison, the recommendation itself is an indicator of the increasing severity with which the government will seek to punish individuals who are found guilty of compromising food safety. It also serves as a reminder of how much more progress needs to be made from a regulatory perspective; in an opinion piece regarding the Parnell case written for Food Safety News, Rena Steinzor predicts that the current lack of regulatory oversight will lead to additional criminal persecutions for food safety offenders in the coming years: “the refusal of Congress to adequately fund the Food Safety Modernization Act has created a vacuum that makes criminal prosecution the only alternative for public officials determined to police the worst actors in an industry plagued by practices that lead to foodborne illness.”