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Salmonella peanuts killed 9 people. Why wasn't the company's CEO charged with murder?

Stewart Parnell, owner and president of the Peanut Corporation of America, in 2009.
Stewart Parnell, owner and president of the Peanut Corporation of America, in 2009.
Mark Wilson

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 massive salmonella outbreak. While this was the harshest punishment ever handed to a producer in a food safety case, it also fell short of a charge some observers thought could be laid against him: murder.

Through his company, the Peanut Corporation of America, Parnell knowingly shipped tainted peanut products across America. Nine people died as a result of eating his products, and thousands more were sickened.

The details of the case are horrifying. His processing facilities were infested with mold and cockroaches. At one point he wrote, "shit, just ship it" in an email after discovering that a shipment might need to be pushed back because of pending salmonella lab test results, according to Wall Street Journal. Some of his shipments were "partially covered with dust and rat feces." Parnell was clearly more concerned with profit than with public health. As he wrote, "I cannot afford to loose [sic] another customer."

As a food executive, Parnell was also very familiar with the potential illness and death that can result from people eating foods tainted with salmonella. The charges against him were unprecedented — conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice, and selling adulterated food —but why wasn't he charged with more?

I spoke to Bill Marler, the top food safety attorney in America, who also represented some of the salmonella victims, to find out. He explained why federal prosecutors chose not to pursue murder charges, why other CEOs implicated in deadly food outbreaks haven't been thrown in prison, and what this case says about a current trend toward the criminalization of food production.

Julia Belluz: If someone took a gun and killed seven people, he would get the death penalty. Why did Stewart Parnell get away with 28 years?

Bill Marler: He was never charged with murders or manslaughter. And in essence, I think the way the feds approached it is — they have the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, and there’s a felony component that says that if you intentionally adulterate a food product and it crosses state lines you can be charged with a felony. Parnell was charged with that — mail fraud, wire fraud, obstruction of justice — a whole host of federal crimes.

JB: But is there any mechanism by which to charge a food executive implicated in a deadly outbreak with murder?

BM: Certainly a US attorney could have charged him with murder — but they had so much on him already, they knew they could put him in jail for a long time, they made the decision not to prosecute him for murder. I think the prosecutors were concerned that some of the people who died were elderly, or had other health complications, that put them at risk for a bacterial infection. Some of their death certificates don't list salmonella as the cause of death. They list heart failure. They may have been worried that even though salmonella is what put them into an early grave, they would have lost on some of those counts.

I think the prosecutors made the best decision they could. Frankly, though, a state attorney in one of the states where those people died could charge Parnell with murder or manslaughter.

JB: The public has heard a lot about high-profile food safety cases — tainted caramel apples, cantaloupe, cheese — many resulting in death (and many that you've worked on). Why weren't these other food executives thrown in prison, too?

BM: There's two parts of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. One is misdemeanor, which in the simplest sense means you did not intentionally put adulterated food into market place across state lines. You unintentionally did it. Most people involved with foodborne outbreaks could be charged with misdemeanors. There’s no intent on the part of the corporation or the corporate leaders to intentionally put that product into the market.

Parnell was different. There's loads of evidence that he knowingly shipped contaminated products out of his plant into the marketplace: There are emails, testimonies from other workers. That’s why they charged him with a felony. So the real difference is intent, and proving intent is not an easy thing to do.

JB: In your 20 years of work on food safety, have you seen many Stewart Parnells — food executives who do cartoonishly evil things in the pursuit of profit?

BM: Fortunately, this is the one case I can point to and say that there’s clear intent. I'm glad we don't have a lot of these. If we did, I'd be worried about our food supply. The ones that happen are not done intentionally. It's just bad food handling practices. You have to be pretty careful when you criminalize food manufacturing. You have to be selective about who you’re going to charge — whether it be a felony or misdemeanor.

JB: Do you think this case will set a precedent? Are we going to see more criminalizing of food executives who do bad things?

BM: There are a few food safety cases over time, where there have been some criminal prosecutions, but it’s been few and far between. I'm not a huge fan of the criminalization of things. And I have a very hard time with the death penalty or drug laws because they’re laid out so unfairly for people. It’s a due process issue for me.

One of the things I worry about — when you start down this path of criminalization for food production, where are you going to stop? That's one of the things US attorneys and the public struggle with. Why this guy, and why not others? That’s a tough one.