The former owner of the Peanut Corporation of America faces lifetime imprisonment, following a salmonella outbreak which killed 9 people and sickened 714.
The hearing for 61-year old Stewart Parnell has been scheduled for today, in Albany, Georgia. Two of his co-defendants also risk prison: Michael Parnell, the owner’s brother, and Mary Wilkerson, the factory’s quality control manager. The former litigant faces between 19 to 24 years in prison, while the latter may serve 5 years for obstructing justice.
On September 19, 2014 Parnell was found guilty on 72 counts of conspiracy, fraud and other charges. He had distributed King Nut peanut butter from his company to other customers, although he knew the product was tainted with salmonella serotype Typhimurium.
The creamy butter had been prepared in a processing plant in Blakely, Georgia, and the infections were reported between September 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009.
Federal authorities discovered that the factory was teeming with rats and roaches, and had a leaky roof. There were also records and email exchanges between the defendants suggesting they did know about the salmonella contamination, but took no measures against it.
Parnell famously wrote “Just ship it” to a plant manager who had informed him about an infected batch, which had been tested positive for the bacteria. Moreover, quality control results were forged to suggest the peanut butter was fit for consumption. Other batches hadn’t even been tested, but records were faked, to claim health standards had been followed.
Eventually, the tainted King Nut reached Kellogg’s and other institutions, food service providers, manufacturers and distributors. The business partners used the butter as ingredient for more than 2833 products, especially Austin and Keebler pre-packaged peanut butter crackers.
On January 16, 2009 Kellogg’s placed a voluntary recall on these food items. Overall, 714 people in 46 states were infected, their median age being 16 years old. 24% of the patients required hospitalization, and 9 fatalities were recorded in Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio.
Now, Parnell is about to be sentenced in what experts have deemed the first major lawsuit against American processors involved in a food poisoning outbreak. He faces prison time for 9,636 months, the equivalent of 803 years. This staggering punishment was recommended by the U.S. Probation Office, due to the severity of the contamination, which resulted in so many deaths and illnesses.
Moreover, Parnell’s corporate partners also suffered damages of up to $144 million, as a result of extensive food recalls. However, the executive’s defense team asks for leniency, and firmly rejects the proposed penalty as overly harsh. Bill Marler, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, has also conceded that a life sentence would be an “unprecedented” verdict.
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