Peanuts to prison: food executive gets 28 years for salmonella-product fraud

The former owner and president of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), Stewart Parnell, received the largest criminal sentence by a food executive in a food safety case—336 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release—for his involvement in the shipment of salmonella-tainted peanut products. The sentence follows his conviction on multiple felony counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, and the sale of misbranded food. The owner’s brother, a food broker who worked for P.P. Sales, and a PCA plant employee were also sentenced—to 240 months and 60 months in prison, respectively—for their involvement in the shipment of the tainted food, which led to a deadly 2009 salmonella outbreak. Two other PCA employees are scheduled to be sentenced for their participation on October 1, 2015.

Outbreak

The criminal conduct of the PCA officials and employees led to the 2009 salmonella outbreak, which resulted in 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning and reached 46 states. Based upon epidemiological projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the outbreak included more than 22,000 total cases and nine deaths. This is not the first time in 2015 that peanut products have thrust food companies into the criminal spotlight. In May 2015, ConAgra Grocery Products LLC, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., paid $11.2 million under a guilty plea related to allegations that it introduced Peter Pan and private label peanut butter contaminated with salmonella into interstate commerce during a 2006 and 2007 salmonellosis outbreak (see ConAgra to pay $11.2M for its peanut butter and salmonella sandwich, Health Law Daily, May 20, 2015).

Fraud

The government showed at trial that Parnell and other employees misled consumers about the presence of salmonella in their products. Specifically, evidence showed that Parnell and others fabricated certificates of analysis (COAs)—“documents that summarize laboratory results, including test results concerning the presence or absence of pathogens in food”—accompanying shipments of peanut products. The COAs were falsified to indicate that the peanut products were free of pathogens when the products either had not been tested or tests showed the presence of pathogens. The government also presented evidence that Parnell and two other employees gave untrue or misleading answers to FDA investigators who visited a PCA plant to investigate the salmonella outbreak. The prosecution’s opening statement in Parnell’s trial relied on the following words that Parnell sent in a 2007 email to a plant manager about contaminated products: “Just ship it.”

Impact

U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore of the Middle District of Georgia said that the sentence “means that executives will no longer be able to hide behind the corporate veil.” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said that the sentencing “sends a powerful message to officials in the food industry that they stand in a special position of trust with the American consumer, and those who put profit above the welfare of their customers and knowingly sell contaminated food will face serious consequences.” Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety lawyer who represented several victims of the outbreak, said, “our government seems to be sending a clear message that poisoning your customers may well land you in jail.”