28-year prison sentence for peanut executive hailed as 'victory for consumers'

Stewart Parnell, the former owner of the Peanut Corporation of America, received 28 years in prison for knowingly shipping peanut butter linked to the deaths of nine people in 2008-2009. 

Don Petersen/AP/File
Peanut Corporation of America's president Stewart Parnell, arrives to United States Federal Court in Lynchburg, Va., March 12, 2009. The former owner of Peanut Corporation of America was sentenced to 28 years in prison on Monday. He was convicted Sept. 19, 2014, of knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted peanut butter from his plant in Blakely, Ga., to Kellogg's and other customers who used it in products from packaged crackers to pet food. The jury also found Parnell and his brother, food broker Michael Parnell, guilty of faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella.

The former owner of a peanut company was given a de facto life sentence for knowingly shipping contaminated peanut butter that was linked to deaths from salmonella. 

The sentence – 28 years for 61-year-old Stewart Parnell – was the harshest ever given for this type of case. Many observers said the sentence was designed to send a message to companies across the nation.

"The fact that he was prosecuted at all is a victory for consumers," Bill Marler, an attorney who specializes in cases for food safety and represented many of the salmonella victims civilly, told the Associated Press.

Lawyers on the case agreed that the harsh sentence would have implications for many more companies that might cut corners on food safety for profit's sake. A lawyer in the office that prosecuted the case, Michael Moore of Georgia, called the sentence "a landmark with implications that will resonate not just in the food industry but in corporate boardrooms across the country."

The defense attorneys of Mr. Parnell and two executives also connected with the case plan to appeal what they say are overly harsh and unprecedented sentences. 

"If you compare it with other food-safety criminal cases, it's tremendously out of line," said Tom Bondurant, one of Parnell's attorneys.

Parnell, who has not spoken publicly since the salmonella scandal, apologized and asked for forgiveness. He said the seven years since the salmonella outbreak that led to massive product recalls had been "a nightmare" for him and his family.

"I am personally embarrassed, humiliated and morally disgraced by what happened," he said, according to the BBC.

Families of the nine who deaths and illnesses were linked to salmonella in peanut butter in 2008 and 2009 were pleased with the sentence.

"It should be enough to send a message to the other manufacturers that this is not going to be tolerated anymore and they had better inspect their food," Randy Napier, whose mother died of salmonella, told the AP.

Parnell's own family pleaded with the court, which was filled with the families of elderly people who had died of salmonella or children who had become ill, to be lenient.

"They lost their income, all their material things and worst of all their pride," Parnell's mother, Zelda Parnell, said of Parnell and the co-defendants – Parnell's brother, Michael Parnell, and Mary Wilkerson, the quality control manager at the peanut plant. Michael Parnell and Ms. Wilkerson received less prison time than Stewart Parnell. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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