Food Safety Magazine

News | July 25, 2015

Unprecedented Life Sentence Recommended for Peanut Executive

By Staff

Unprecedented Life Sentence Recommended for Peanut Executive

Stewart Parnell--the former Peanut Corporation of America owner that was convicted last year for knowingly shipping Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter from his Georgia plant--may be sentenced to life in prison if prosecutors have their way. The U.S. Probation Office concluded that the scope of Parnell’s crimes--including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and wire fraud-- “results in a life sentence Guidelines range.”

After a two month trial, Parnell was found guilty of knowingly shipping the contaminated products to food processors across the U.S. This is reportedly the first federal felony conviction of its kind in relation to food safety, making it an unprecedented case.

In 2008 and 2009, the peanut butter outbreak spread throughout 46 states, ultimately leading the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to announce one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Nine people died and more than 700 fell ill. Parnell nor any co-defendants were ever charged in relation to any consumer illnesses or deaths resulting from the tainted peanut butter.

Ken Hodges, one of Parnell’s defense attorneys says, “We hope the judge will see that Stewart Parnell never meant to hurt anyone. He ate the peanut butter himself. He fed it to his children and to his grandchildren.”

Some argue that while justice should be served, the punishment of life in prison doesn’t fit the crime in this case. However, prosecutors in major food safety cases are increasingly driving home their point--companies and executives who put profits before public health and safety will be held responsible.

Parnell--age  61--is scheduled to be sentenced on September 21 by a federal judge in Albany, GA. Although prosecutors are recommending a life sentence, the judge is free to impose a lighter sentence.

A 17 to 21 year sentence was recommended for brother Michael Parnell. Mary Wilkerson--the plant quality control manager--may get 8 to 10 years in prison based on prosecutors’ recommendation.