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By Megan Fanale Engel and Cori Annapolen Goldberg
On September 19th, a federal jury in Albany, GA found three former Peanut Company of America (“PCA”) executives guilty of felony charges related to food safety violations. Stewart Parnell, the former owner of PCA; Mary Wilkerson, the former quality control manager at a PCA plant; and Michael Parnell, a peanut broker, were accused of conspiracy related to obstruction of justice, fraud, and knowingly introducing misbranded and adulterated food into the stream of interstate commerce.
The case involved a 2008-2009 salmonella outbreak that resulted in 714 illnesses in 43 states and nine deaths. Investigators found that PCA’s plant in Blakely, GA had a leaky roof, evidence of rodents, and roaches present, conditions that present a breeding ground for salmonella. In addition, investigators found documents showing that laboratory tests had confirmed the presence of salmonella in PCA peanut butter that was shipped to customers anyway.
The jury convicted Stewart Parnell of 67 federal felony counts, Michael Parnell of 30 federal counts, and Mary Wilkerson of one federal felony count. Specifically, Stewart Parnell was convicted of knowingly sending customers salmonella-infected peanut butter. These customers then used the peanut butter in various other products, including pet food and packaged crackers. In addition, the jury found Michael Parnell and Stewart Parnell guilty of falsifying the results of laboratory tests used to determine whether the peanut butter samples had traces of salmonella after the government presented evidence indicating that laboratory tests had confirmed the presence of salmonella in PCA products that were shipped to customers anyway. The government had alleged that the brothers engaged in this behavior to keep pace with production schedules for customers. Mary Wilkerson was convicted of obstruction of justice for withholding information from the government.
The individuals will be sentenced at a later date. Michael and Stewart Parnell face the possibility of 10 years in prison for each count, effectively a potential life sentence. Mary Wilkerson faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and a fine of $250,000.
The guilty verdicts should send a strong message to food company executives that the knowing placement of adulterated or misbranded food into the stream of commerce could result in criminal charges, fines, and jail time.
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