Peanut Corporation Of America Owner Facing Possible Thirty Year Sentence After Conviction In Food Poisoning Case

Submitted by Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

Stewart Parnell
Stewart Parnell

In what promises to be a sign of holding executives liable for their involvement in putting poisonous products into the food supply a Federal Jury convicted former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell of Conspiracy, Obstruction of Justice, Wire Fraud, and other crimes relating to a nationwide outbreak of salmonella that sickened over seven hundred individuals in forty three states and likely killed nine. Federal investigators in 2009 traced tainted peanut butter supplied by Parnell’s business to several producers who then packaged it into peanut butter containing foods according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The seven week trial, the culmination of a five year ordeal, has perhaps in measure brought closure and justice for those suffering damages from executives who knowingly and intentionally conspired to endanger so many.

In addition to Stewart Parnell, his Brother Michael Parnell–a food broker, was found guilty of also forging laboratory tests intended to screen for salmonella. The quality control manager for PCA, Mary Wilkerson, along with Stewart Parnell, were found guilty of Obstructing Justice for withholding information from federal investigators.

peanut-corporation-of-america-logoInspectors discovered the plant infested with rats and cockroaches and a leaky roof, conditions likely adding to the risk of salmonella.

“Corporate officials are now on notice that they’ll be held to account for their conduct and claims of ignorance of arguments that ‘I was too busy’ or maybe that ‘I delegated the responsibility to someone else’ or even just finger-pointing in general will not be a shield from basic responsibility,” said U.S. Attorney Michael Moore, whose office in Georgia’s Middle District prosecuted the case.

A copy of the original indictment may be downloaded HERE

During the trial, forty six witnesses were called and over one thousand pages of documents were entered into evidence. The jury did not hear testimony concerning the deaths of the nine victims. U.S. Attorney Michael Moore stated he did not wish to enter the issue of the deaths into the trial, electing instead to build what he believed to be a stronger and a more easily proven case by focusing on the fraudulent nature of the events alleged. “We wanted to make sure we kept the jury focused on the conduct that led to these people’s sickness, but not let the case get into the medical history of every victim out there with testimony on individual deaths,” Moore said.

The Arizona Republic reported that “[d]efense attorneys have acknowledged the Georgia plant shipped tainted peanut butter and covered up positive salmonella tests, but they say the scheme was carried out behind the backs of the Parnell brothers by two plant managers who pleaded guilty. Before the trial began, defense lawyers asked the judge to rule any evidence of sickness or death out-of-bounds. They argued it was irrelevant to the prosecutors’ fraud case and would unfairly “sway the passions of the jury” toward convictions.

Moore said his prosecutors also had doubts about whether death evidence would be admissible, or whether convictions in the case would be vulnerable to appeals if the trial judge allowed the jury to hear that people died. Prosecutors backed off before Judge W. Louis Sands ruled he would allow evidence that people got sick.”

One aspect that could have complicated the issues raised at trial was not only the deaths themselves, but the issue as to whether the jury would find that the cause of death was actually the food-poisoning or other pathologies. Those who suffered death were older and had other issues such as cancer and heart disease. At least one resided in a nursing home.

While it might be unsettling to some that the crimes resulting in convictions did not relate directly to the deaths over the tainted peanut butter. If the brothers Parnell receive the maximum penalty it could effectively be a life sentence. Stewart Parnell is sixty years of age. They also face millions in fines.

Hopefully the trial will raise awareness among food producers, but the public and regulators should always remain vigilant.

By Darren Smith


AZ Central
United States Department of Justice

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

43 thoughts on “Peanut Corporation Of America Owner Facing Possible Thirty Year Sentence After Conviction In Food Poisoning Case”

  1. Shocking and tragic. Why would they ever think they could get away with this? Those poor people who got sick or died.

    Hope they are severe at sentencing. We ‘re all aware that salmonella poisoning is especially dangerous to the young and the elderly. They must have known, too. Shameful.

  2. 2 great comments from Dr. Harris and maxcat. Having dealt w/ quite a few sociopaths, I think it is largely genetic. The criminal aspect is triggered by one of the Seven Deadly Sins, usually greed. But, there are law abiding sociopaths, they just make the lives of people close to them a living hell.

    1. Nick, I’ve often wondered if it was genetic as well. You hear of too many incidents of people who are raised in wonderful homes, with wonderful siblings, yet the wrong switch is turned in them. Squeeky wrote that we are made to survive, but part of that survival mechanism should be the adaptability to, as she put it, “play nicely with others”, whether one believes it’s evolutionary or simply necessity. As you said, Nick, there are law abiding sociopaths, probably more than we’d like to imagine. Given the right circumstances, more than the people living close to them might feel their sociopathy. The question that arises once we have a society that does have to live cooperatively is what to do with those types of personalities. Legally, nothing can be done until laws are broken, but there have to be more answers.

  3. Well, Rafflaw, if you give this guy 30 years, what do you give Radovan Karowitz for Serbian genocide?

  4. We know what turns newborn babies into horse thieves, Brian Harris. But, as long as the Illuminati continues to ‘control’ the planet few will accept or read about real solutions. Ask me why if you are curious. Most, & especially on these blogs, cannot accept an obvious but unpopular truth. (made unpopular by Illuminati lies too many have bought)

  5. I think that these intentional crimes should be punished to the full extant of the law. 30 years is too short for people who will intentionally put money ahead of peoples lives. Great article Darren.

    1. rafflaw – how long should the sentence be for people who put politics before the people?

      1. ” how long should the sentence be for people who put politics before the people?”

        If lives are lost, what’s the penalty for felony murder?

  6. I don’t wonder at all why some people turn out to care more about money than they do about doing what is right, even if it kills or harms other people. It is because we are, all of us, animals at heart. We are made to survive, not necessarily to play nicely with others.

    The problem arises when we start living together in groups. Then, like any other pack or herd animal, we have to repress those individual survival urges and learn to cooperate and get along. These things have to be taught, and learned. But, that teaching is always going against the inner grain of some people. Plus, people like the one above, don’t really think they will ever have to pay a price for the bad and wrong things that they do.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  7. The case was reported on pretty well in local media, as this was a Georgia company. From all I heard, the prosecution had enough damning testimony without mentioning the deaths, including workers who mentioned violations to the owners with no replies. The news was replete with stories of workers who, despite desperately needing employment, quit their jobs rather than having the possibility of sick or dead people on their consciences. They testified about seeing vermin or droppings in the peanuts and owners who turned blind eyes to it all. It all came out as if it was from the pages of Sinclair Lewis.

    J. Brian Harris – I read your post with interest. It would be wonderful if one day we could identify what does turn in a person. I was once speaking to a friend of mine, a financial planner who, in his line of work, has seen all sorts of people, about the ruthless types who are out for gain at all cost. I remember saying to him that I didn’t know how they slept at night, and his immediate answer was, “don’t kid yourself, they sleep better than you or I do”. Frightening words, but they’re true. I don’t know what switches are turned on or off, if it’s nature or nurture, or what combination of factors are involved. Your story of “(pervasive) infantile autism” and avoiding the terrible twos is interesting, and I have the reverse of that one. I have a cousin who had what I would say was the “terrible two through sixteens”. He was impossible at home, to his mother and father, despite discipline that ranged from mild to severe. In public he was diffident, okay at school, neither good nor bad. I’d go skiing with him, and he was fearless on the slopes. He graduated high school, went off to college, and became the best young man one could ever meet. I was never living in his house, so I don’t know, but I never thought he was even redeemable.

  8. They should go to jail. Not only have they broken the laws, they have done something far worse. They have broken TRUST. Trust. The world really runs on trust. We take for granted or have trust many things every single day.

    You trust that when you buy a product it will be safe and not purposely meant to harm you. This is why the incidents with the Chinese poisoning pet food was so shocking. You trust that the people making the food are not going to purposely try to kill or be so depraved to not even care. This also why people do not trust any foods manufactured in China. Trust can be broken.

    Your car should work and that the brakes are really going to stop you from a fatal accident. You don’t want to imagine that someone would knowingly manufacture a car with no brakes. When you go to a restaurant, you trust that the food will be properly prepared and that the cook won’t spit into your soup. You trust that the cashier at the store is going to give you the right change and not double charge you for your groceries. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t watch the cashier closely :-))

    We know that there are food safety rules, cleanliness standards and rules about manufacture. You trust that when you buy a box of cereal, quart of milk, loaf of bread that is has been manufactured according to those rules and that you are safe to eat those things.

    I’m not saying we should be naive about life and go like Pollyanna, blindly through life either. There are plenty of reasons NOT to trust. BUT…if we didn’t have a layer of trust and if we mistrusted everyone and everything, society would come to a screaming halt.

    These guys broke the laws and the broke the trust. They knowingly put out a product that would harm without any concern for the consequences. For the last they should be punished more than for just breaking a law..

  9. Those who suffered death were older and had other issues such as cancer and heart disease. At least one resided in a nursing home.

    Between the widespread use of glyphosate outdoors and long-term side effects of modern pharmaceuticals, then adding unhealthy lifestyles, we seem to live in a nation that has perfected profiting in the present.

    I think prosecutors would sense a quagmire to rival Dante’s inferno if they included in the case those consumers who deaths were related to the bad peanut butter.

  10. Michael Moore should get a medal and these corproate executives should get life and should be stripped of every dollar they have. I can only hope that the sentencing phase will result is sever and appropriate punishment. It is about time that some prosecuter had the guts to hold a CEO accountable for his bad conduct and not allow him to hide behind the corproate veil. Thank you Michael.

  11. This is a pretty clear cut case. They deserve what they get and I hope it is a lot. Not sure they will be able to tie the deaths to them, that seems a harder case but with this verdict, if they can get it in, it should be easier.

  12. Some day, to use a perhaps-silly analogy, we may learn what turns newborn babies into horse thieves, and, through learning and understanding the aspects of human socialization that drive people toward thievery, may become capable, as a species and as individual members of a species, of preventing whatever it is that carries newborn babies into horse thievery.

    So far, as best I can tell, continuing the silly analogy, we only lock the barn door after the horse thieves have stolen the horses and burned the barn to the ground, and the best we have ever yet been able to do is to lock the door of a purely fictitious and imaginary barn that can never actually exist.

    What, in my view, have humans been doing for many tens of thousands of years? We have been socializing young children to sincerely believe that they need to become unwittingly dishonest so that they can accept social norms which are purely dishonest in both form and function as being not-dishonest.

    A sometimes used name for the socializing of children to believe that dishonesty is honesty and honesty is dishonesty is “the infant-child transition.” Another sometimes used name is “the terrible twos.”

    My parents observed, accurately as I find true, that I never went through the infant-child transition and never went through the terrible twos.

    In the late summer of 1989, my mother and I had a gentle dialogue with each other on a Friday afternoon. That was the last time she told me, “You never went through the terrible twos.” Came the next morning, a few days shy of what would have been her 90th birthday, she completed her biological life.

    It may be useful to wonder why she knew that I had never gone through the infant-child transition and/or the terrible twos. She knew that, and she understood that, because she had, rather like me, never gone through the infant-child transition or the terrible twos.

    My mother lived her whole life in the manner of a little child. She helped me learn how to do that also; so far, for more than 75 years.

    Once on a time, there was a name for the way I have lived the whole of my life, a name which seems to have fallen into disfavor.

    That name was (and still, in truth, is?) is, “(pervasive) infantile autism.”

  13. Darren, you always do an excellent job of presenting cases on this blog.

    I applaud the prosecutor for sticking to the facts he could prove and not overcharging as so often happens. This may not have resulted in such a good verdict for the prosecution if they had not kept the jury focused on the pertinent facts.

  14. It is interesting that the law is justly prosecuting these vermin irrespective of their, “I was too far above and distanced from the activity to have had anything to do with it.” defense. It would have been nice if prosecutors would have disregarded that defense in the case of ‘Snakehead’ Rick Scott when he defrauded the people of hundreds of millions of dollars with his health care insurance scam. He had good lawyers and went on to become Governor of Florida, taking his corruption with him. In fact he used a hundred million or so of his loot to buy the election.

  15. Very interesting piece, Darren. There has always been a double standard for corporate and white collar criminals. I have seen individual prosecutors and judges w/ integrity, treating white collar thugs like regular thugs. But, these prosecutors and judges are too few. I don’t know the solution.

  16. Hopefully the trial will raise awareness among food producers, but the public and regulators should always remain vigilant.

    I’m at a bit of a loss here, Darren. I agree that regulators should remain vigilant, but how could public vigilance have affected the contents of the peanut butter?

  17. Corporate, food terrorists.

    Those arguments that we don’t need regulation because the market will clear itself of bad actors seem pretty thin right now.

    This is not supposed to happen because rational business owners know that the market will remove businesses that provide inferior products. Therefore they would never place their business and their livelihood at risk by knowingly producing an inferior, dangerous or unhealthy product.

    I can’t wait for someone to argue that the only way PCA could have survived for five years is that some people really want salmonella in their peanut butter.

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