Sammy Lightsey had just started managing a Georgia peanut plant when he realized something was wrong. The plant wasn’t waiting for lab tests to confirm that its peanut products were free from salmonella before shipping them around the country.
He went straight to the top, telling executives he couldn’t do it.
“It was illegal and it was wrong,” he testified in court last year. He said he was told “it was set up before I got there” and “don’t worry.”
Indeed, its products were not salmonella-free. Peanut butter and peanut paste produced by Peanut Corporation of America were later found to be contaminated, triggering an outbreak in 2008 and 2009 that killed nine people and sickened some 700 others. The company’s owner had given the go-ahead to ship containers that were partially “covered in dust and rat crap,” according to court documents.
It was one of the most blatant coverups of lethal food production practices. And now it’s generated one of the strongest recommended punishments in a food poisoning case: life in prison.
Federal authorities this week recommended the plant’s former owner, 61-year-old Stewart Parnell, spend life behind bars. He was found guilty last year on 71 criminal counts, which included conspiracy, obstruction of justice and wire fraud, according to the Associated Press. It was said to be the first such case in which corporate executives and plant workers were called to trial.
“Life in prison, especially in a food case, it’s frankly unprecedented,” Bill Marler, an attorney for the victims, told the Associated Press. “But the case itself, on a factual basis, is unprecedented.”
Parnell is slated to be sentenced in September in federal court.
At trial, prosecutors laid out a seven-week paper trail that included e-mails, lab results and financial records that showed Parnell not only knew about the contamination but had worked to cover it up while he continued to ship bad products to food processors. In one e-mail from March 2007, he told his crew: “S—, just ship it. I cannot afford to loose (sic) another customer.”
The plant once boasted that it was “The Processor of the World’s Finest Peanut Products” and claimed to have a “remarkable food-safety record.” But at the plant in Blakely, Georgia, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uncovered mold, roaches and water leaks. Over the years, its products had tested positive for salmonella at least six times, The Washington Post reported in 2013.
The plant had been roasting raw peanuts and shipping peanut butter and peanut paste to food manufacturers and distributors, such as Kellogg’s. Its peanut products were put into cookies, crackers, cereal, candy, ice cream, pet treats, among other foods. Salmonella was traced to these products across the country. Ultimately, the outbreak spread across 46 states and Canada, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of those who were infected were children. Deaths were reported in Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
The U.S. Department of Justice said Parnell and others made up lab test results when the food had never even been tested and covered up results that later showed the products were tainted. Following the outbreak in 2009, Parnell’s peanut plant went bankrupt.
In February 2013, Parnell and his brother, former peanut broker Michael Parnell, along with Lightsey and the control manager, Mary Wilkerson, were indicted. Lightsey later pleaded guilty to seven criminal counts in exchange for a lighter sentence and his testimony.
On Wednesday, federal authorities submitted a brief proposing a life sentence for Parnell and 17 to 21 years for his brother, Michael Parnell, the Associated Press first reported. The recommendation for Wilkerson is eight to 10 years in prison for obstruction of justice. It’s a move that even the prosecution has called “unprecedented” — perhaps a product of the government’s push for tougher food-safety regulations.
“In the last three to four years, all of a sudden, the Justice Department decided it’ll have to enforce the law,” Theodore Labuza, a University of Minnesota professor of food science and engineering, told the Washington Times. “It’s saying to the food industry, ‘you’ve got to do a better job.’”
But Parnell’s attorney called the proposal “truly absurd.”
“We hope the judge will see that Stewart Parnell never meant to hurt anyone,” his attorney Ken Hodges told Associated Press. “He ate the peanut butter himself. He fed it to his children and to his grandchildren.”
It is possible, however, for the judge to give a lighter sentence.
Salmonella is an intestinal bacteria often carried in animal feces. It can make its way into food products from food handlers who don’t wash their hands with soap after using the restroom, for example, and it can live in moist foods such as meats and eggs — as well as peanut butter.
“The people at the top are responsible,” Labuza told the Washington Times. “They can be charged with felonies.”