Prosecutors Recommend Life Sentence For Peanut Co. Exec Involved In Salmonella Outbreak

Stewart Parnell is the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, the company behind a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed nine people in 2008 and 2009. Last year, a federal jury convicted him of knowingly shipping tainted peanut butter, and this week prosecutors in the case recommended he receive a life sentence for his crimes.

Parnell is scheduled to be sentenced in September, so the U.S. Probation Office has been busy writing up pre-sentencing reports.

According to a brief [PDF] filed by prosecutors with the court earlier this week, the Probation folks’ calculation “results in a life sentence” recommendation for Parnell.

Per sentencing guidelines, the Probation Office bumped up Parnell’s offense by six levels because there were more than 250 financial victims. But lawyers for the former peanut exec questioned this recommendation, claiming that the government only produced sufficient evidence of 31 financial victims. Parnell’s team also asserted that prosecutors failed to establish that any individual sustained bodily injury as a result of his conduct.

In response, prosecutors point to testimony from Dr. Ian Williams, Chief of the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control, in which he explained that 714 illnesses had been tied directly to the Peanut Corp. outbreak through the CDC’s PulseNet.

And these aren’t merely anecdotal, “I ate some peanut butter and felt sick afterward” incidents. In order to be included in that 714 figure, a patient had to go to a doctor and provide a stool sample. That stool sample would then not only have to be tested and diagnosed with salmonellosis, but also be forwarded to a PulseNet certified lab and run through a different process before the data is uploaded to PulseNet, reviewed and certified by a CDC technician.

Thus, Dr. Williams figured that for every case of salmonellosis reported to PulseNet and confirmed by the CDC, there are approximately 30 other cases of salmonellosis that aren’t reported. In his testimony, the doctor explained that this outbreak may have left “as many as 20,000 ill people across the United States.”

Prosecutors also point to a New England Journal of Medicine article, “Salmonella Typhimurium Infections Associated with Peanut Products,” that links the 714 reported illnesses and nine deaths to this outbreak.

“No fewer than 24 epidemiologists, scientists, and foodborne outbreak experts signed off on this article,” write the prosecutors, who say that objections raised by Parnell and his fellow defendants are “nothing more than an attempt to change the facts that were presented at trial and that the jury found in deciding to convict.”

In a statement to the AP, Parnell’s attorney calls the life sentence recommendation “truly absurd,” adding that “We hope the judge will see that Stewart Parnell never meant to hurt anyone. He ate the peanut butter himself. He fed it to his children and to his grandchildren.”

Even a lawyer representing victims of the outbreak acknowledged that “Life in prison, especially in a food case, it’s frankly unprecedented… But the case itself, on a factual basis, is unprecedented.”