Former Peanut Co. Exec Gets 28 Year Prison Sentence For Salmonella Outbreak Tied To 9 Deaths

A year after being found guilty of knowingly shipping contaminated foods that sickened thousands and is tied to the deaths of at least nine people, Stewart Parnell, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, has been sentenced to 28 years behind bars, while two of his colleagues received lighter — but still substantial — sentences.

In 2008 and 2009, PCA produced salmonella-tainted peanut butter that resulted in an outbreak of salmonellosis. While the official number of illnesses tied to PCA products is 714, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe that for every reported case of salmonellosis, there are 30 that go unreported. That would put the likely total for illnesses closer to 20,000.

During the pre-sentencing process, federal prosecutors had recommended a sentence of such length that it would have amounted to a life sentence.

Parnell’s lawyers said that his offense did not rise to that level and that the government had only produced sufficient evidence of 31 financial victims. A more brazen assertion from the defense was that the Justice Dept. had failed to establish that any individual sustained bodily injury as a result of his conduct.

That’s when the DOJ pointed to the 714 known illnesses and nine deaths, which were not simply linked to the PCA outbreak by anecdote or coincidence, but by independent testing of biological samples.

Parnell is 61 years old, so a 28 year sentence may indeed mean that he will never be a free man again.

His 56-year-old brother Michael, who had been a food broker for PCA, received a sentence of 20 years, while former PCA quality control manager Mary Wilkerson, will spend five years in prison with another two years of probation.

At the sentencing, Stewart Parnell issued a self-serving apology.

“This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family,” he said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m truly, truly sorry for what’s happened.”

David Plunkett of the Center for Science in the Public Interest applauded the sentences, but noted that the “will not bring back the nine Americans who died after eating contaminated peanut products that Parnell and his co-defendants knowingly marketed, nor will they retroactively undo the sicknesses and hospitalizations of those who survived. But they will send a very strong signal to food manufacturers that pursuing profits at the expense of food safety can bring the most severe of consequences.”

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