Former peanut executive Stewart Parnell was sentenced Monday to 28 years in prison for his role in a nationwide salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened hundreds in 2008 and 2009.
The sentence marked the most severe punishment ever for a food-related crime. Prosecutors had sought life in prison for the 61-year-old executive, and the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands essentially could amount to that.
“These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit and to protect profits notwithstanding the known risks,” the judge said, according to the Associated Press. “This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed.”
By all accounts, Monday’s sentencing hearing in a federal courthouse in Albany, Ga., overflowed with emotion on both sides.
Families of victims poisoned by salmonella after eating products from Parnell’s company, Peanut Corp. of America, spent the morning urging the judge to impose the stiffest possible sentence. Jacob Hurley, only 3 when he got seriously ill after eating peanut butter crackers, said it would be okay with him for Parnell “to spend the rest of his life in prison,” according to press reports. Jeff Almer, whose 72-year-old mother died as a result of the outbreak, felt the same. “You took my mom,” he told Parnell.
Others defended Parnell’s character. His mother spoke on his behalf. His daughter described him as a doting grandfather who always put others before himself. His son asked the judge to “please show my father mercy when considering his sentencing,” according to a local reporter tweeting from the hearing.
Parnell, who was found guilty last year on more than 70 criminal charges, including knowingly shipping tainted food across state lines, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and wire fraud, never testified at his trial or when called to a hearing on Capitol Hill.
But on Monday he expressed remorse in court, apologizing to customers and saying he was “personally embarrassed, humiliated and morally disgraced by what happened.” He also addressed the victims and their families, according to the AP report, saying “I think about you guys every day” and “I’m truly sorry for what happened.”
Parnell’s now-bankrupt company, based in Virginia but with a production plant in Georgia, once touted its “remarkable food-safety record.” But in reality its own internal tests turned up salmonella contamination a half-dozen times in 2007 and 2008, according to investigators. Parnell approved shipments despite such warnings.
Investigators documented a litany of unsanitary conditions at the plant, including mold, roaches, dirty equipment, holes big enough to allow rodents inside and a failure to separate raw and cooked products. They also unearthed e-mails that showed Parnell hastily approving shipments he knew might be contaminated.
The case is the latest and in a series of high-profile criminal prosecutions pursued by the federal government in recent years. The federal government in recent years also has prosecuted cases involving tainted eggs that sickened thousands of people and contaminated cantaloupes that led to 33 deaths. But no other executives have yet faced a sentence like the one Parnell received Monday.
Michael Parnell, a former supervisor at the company and Stewart Parnell’s brother, who was convicted on fewer criminal counts, received a sentence Monday of 20 years in prison. Mary Wilkerson, a quality-control manager at the Georgia plant who was convicted of obstruction of justice, received a 5-year sentence.
“Americans should be able to trust that the food we buy for ourselves and our families is safe,” Stuart Delery, the Justice Department’s acting associate attorney general, said in a statement Monday. “The sentences handed down today to officials associated with the Peanut Corporation of America demonstrate the consequences for those whose criminal actions threaten that trust by introducing contaminated food into the marketplace.”
Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler said the fact that Parnell was prosecuted at all is a victory for consumers, as it should serve as a deterrent to other food executives. “This sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through board rooms across the U.S.,” Marler said.
“We think the sentence itself is extremely high,” Parnell’s attorney, Thomas J. Bondurant Jr., said Monday. “He’s obviously disappointed, but we knew it was a likelihood something like this could happen.”
Bondurant said Parnell intends to appeal the verdicts against him.