On Monday, a federal judge sentenced Stewart Parnell, the former owner of a Georgia peanut company, to 28 years in prison for his role in a recent salmonella outbreak. This was the harshest punishment ever handed to a producer in a food safety case.
According to the Department of Justice, Parnell had committed "conspiracy to defraud" consumers by knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut products across the country. He also falsified lab test results that accompanied the shipments to make the products seem safe, and approved shipments "partially covered with dust and rat feces."
The 2008-'09 salmonella outbreak caused by Parnell's tainted peanut products was one of the worst in recent US history, killing nine people and sickening more than 700 in 46 states.
Parnell's peanut fraud was cartoonishly evil
Some food poisoning outbreaks can arguably be chalked up to lax oversight. Not Parnell's. According to the Department of Justice, the former owner and president of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) had known full well what he was doing when the company shipped tainted peanut products across the country.
At one point Parnell wrote, "shit, just ship it" after discovering that a shipment might need to pushed back because of pending salmonella lab test results, according to Wall Street Journal. "I cannot afford to loose [sic] another customer." Parnell was also accused of falsifying lab reports on tainted shipments.
The results were disgusting — and deadly. The company's tainted products led to a salmonella outbreak that lasted from 2008 to 2009, causing 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning and nine deaths in 46 states. The CDC usually estimates that reported cases are only a small fraction of the number of people affected, which means that thousands of people were probably harmed.
Food and Drug Administration inspectors later found mold, cockroaches, and dirty equipment at the company's processing facilities. Eventually, PCA was forced to recall every product it had produced since 2007 — one of the largest recalls in US history, New York magazine reported.
The courts were harsh. No food executive has ever been convicted of federal felony charges, according to CNN. Parnell got 28 years on criminal charges including conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice, and selling adulterated food. The judge in the case, Louis Sands, said, "These acts were driven simply by the desire to profit. This is commonly and accurately referred to as greed."
Meanwhile, Stewart Parnell's brother, Michael Parnell, who also worked at the Georgia company, was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison (for fraud, conspiracy, and selling misbranded food), and the company's former quality assurance manager got five years, for obstruction of justice.
None of them were convicted for the deaths of people in the outbreak.
"[This] sentencing sends a powerful message to officials in the food industry," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Mizer, "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."
Mizer added that the Department of Justice will "continue to work aggressively with its partners" to ensure the safety of the food supply.
Why don't other food executives face harsh sentences?
Most food executives don't face the same punishment that Parnell did, even when their products kill people. But why?
Marion Nestle, a New York University professor who wrote the seminal tome on the politics of nutrition, Food Politics, thinks this is because "nobody bothered to prosecute them, and probably because they didn’t think they had a strong enough case."
The Peanut Corporation of America case was particularly "egregious," she added, since there was a clear evidence of fraud and conspiracy.
"I think the fact that he was prosecuted at all is a victory for consumers," Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who represented several salmonella victims, told CNN.
"Although his sentence is less than the maximum, it is the longest sentence ever in a food poisoning case," he added. "This sentence is going to send a stiff, cold wind through board rooms across the US."
The federal government is cracking down on unsafe food practices
Before Parnell's sentencing, the case had already reverberated: It helped prompt the federal government's 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, the most sweeping overhaul of the federal food safety system in 70 years.
In the past, the food industry was only required to react to outbreaks of food poisoning. The new regulations shift the industry into prevention mode, forcing manufacturers to take measures that stop outbreaks before they happen.
"This law makes the companies liable if they don't comply," explained Nestle. "It gives the FDA some teeth, which they've never had before."
Improving oversight of food safety is hugely important, considering 48 million people (one in six Americans) get sick from the food they eat every year. Of those, about 128,000 wind up in hospitals, and 3,000 die.