Peanut case a crucial lesson in food safety
Federal prosecutors have this to say about placing profits over food safety: It carries a jail sentence. They emphasize that the convictions of Bedford, GA-based Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) executives Stewart Parnell and his brother, Michael, represent an important warning to others who may be tempted to forego food-safety practices.
The Parnells were convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other charges, at the expense of more than 700 people in 43 states who were sickened by salmonella-tainted peanut butter. The outbreak in 2008 and 2009 was linked to nine deaths.
However, prosecutors chose not to use evidence of the deaths in the seven-week trial in Albany, GA. The tainted peanut butter was traced by federal investigators to PCA’s plant in Blakely, GA, and the salmonella outbreak led to one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history.
By the time federal investigators traced the problem to the Blakely plant, they found the plant had a leaky roof, roaches and evidence of rodents, including mouse carcasses. These all issues amounted to ingredients for brewing salmonella.
Stewart Parnell, owner of the now-defunct corporation, could face more than 30 years in prison, while brother Michael and another co-defendant, Mary Wilkerson, could face 20 years in prison or more.
Food-safety experts watching the trial closely applauded the jury verdict. Jaydee Hanson of the Center for Food Safety phrased it this way: “The message it sends is actually a pretty simple one: If you deliberately ship and sell contaminated food, there’s now a good chance you might go to jail.”
Another lesson stemming from the trial is the extent to which corporate officials will be held responsible for their actions in the marketplace. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore, whose office prosecuted the case, reports that corporate officials are on notice that they’ll be held accountable for their conduct and claims of ignorance arguments of being “too busy” or “it was someone else’s responsibility” won’t protect them from basic responsibility.