Most of us, when we open the fridge or pantry for a snack, are lucky enough to trust that our food is safe.
This was not the case for nine people who lost their lives and hundreds more sickened by contaminated peanut products from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA)—and now, some company authorities are paying the price.
Stewart Parnell, former executive of the southern food company, was sentenced Monday to 28 years in prison—a virtual life term for the 61-year-old—for deliberately shipping salmonella-stricken peanut butter to customers and businesses.
His brother, food broker Michael Parnell, was given 20 years for providing Kellogg’s with tainted peanut paste from the corporation. Former quality control manager Mary Wilkerson received five years.
According to USA Today, the case stemmed from an investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that traced a national salmonella outbreak to the peanut company, sickening 714 people across the 46 states and likely contributing to nine deaths.
A federal jury convicted Stewart on 71 criminal counts, ranging from conspiracy and obstruction of justice to the introduction of adulterated food.
Prosecutors presented “more than 1,000 documents including months of emails, lab results, and financial records to make their case that [Stewart] Parnell knew about the contamination, covered it up, and ordered PCA to continue shipments of salmonella-tainted peanut paste used to manufacture a variety of products,” CNN’s Moni Basu reported.
Wired published a portion of the indictment, which includes damning quotes by Stewart Parnell from various emails.
The report said:
“…upon being told that salmonella testing results were not yet available and that shipment of a portion of a customer’s product would therefore be delayed, Stewart Parnell stated, via email: ‘S**t, just ship it. I cannot afford to loose [sic] another customer.”
“…in discussing the possibility of [the Peanut Corporation of America] obtaining its own laboratory testing equipment, Stewart Parnell stated…: ‘These lab tests and [certificates of analysis] are f***ing breaking me/us.’”
Lastly, in response to 1,374 pounds of peanut products left over from production as “waste,” Stewart stated in an email:
“IT IS MONEY … IT IS MONEY … IT IS MONEY … IT IS G** D*** MONEY
THAT WE DO NOT HAVE BECAUSE OF HOW LONG I HAVE ALLOWED you, your crew and everyone down there to let THIS GO ON … STOP THE MONEY FROM EVER GETTING OUT OF THE PRODUCTION FLOW!!!!!!!!!!”
Food Safety News published a revealing timeline entitled, “Peanut Corporation of America from Inception to Indictment,” detailing an array of events leading up to Stewart’s conviction.
Apparently, shady business has been the norm for PCA since the early 2000s.
On June 19, 2003, according to food and agriculture reporter Gretchen Goetz, the manager of interim operations at PCA sent a fax to operations manager Daniel Kilgore, instructing him to “substitute Chinese Extra Large peanuts for Blanched Jumbo Runners when shipping to a customer who had requested the latter,” without notifying the customer. These instructions came “per Stewart.”
Then, from 2004 to 2006, Kilgore and Stewart “ordered products to be shipped to customers before receiving results of microbiological testing that reveal the presence of salmonella in the product on eight separate occasions.”
“They do not inform customers who received the potentially contaminated product in any of these instances.”
Victims and activists have been devotedly present in the court room since Stewart’s initial conviction. Jeff Almer was among them.
Almer lost his 72-year-old mother in 2008, four days before Christmas, to tainted product from the Peanut Corporation of America.
“She survived lung cancer and a brain tumor,” CNN reported. “But not peanut butter.”
For most, salmonella is dangerous, but not life-threatening—usually clearing up without treatment after four to seven days of diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
For young children and the elderly, it can be fatal.
Since his mother’s death, Almer has tirelessly crusaded for food safety in her honor. In 2009, he testified before Congress against the PCA, writing in a recent opinion piece to Food Safety News:
“It is the government’s job to protect us from these deliberate misdeeds. Families and individuals whose lives were forever changed by foodborne illnesses helped pass the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s groundbreaking food safety law, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)—a critical first step toward the kind of food safety oversight that could have protected my mother and hundreds more from the PCA executives.”
Before the September 21 trial, Almer wrote a Mother’s Day card and addressed it to Stewart, saying:
“I did not know where to send this to since my mother is no longer alive, so I am sending it to you, the person who is responsible for where she is today.”
Upon sentencing, Almer said, “I am satisfied there were convictions and now jail terms, but less so in that all this could have been avoided.”
While the judicial outcome is historic, salmonella outbreaks are unfortunately common. It was reported this week that three are dead and 558 have been sickened by salmonella-tainted cucumbers from Andrew and Williamson Fresh Produce of San Diego.
If you or a loved one have purchased cucumbers related to that brand from August 1 to September 3 in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, or Utah, ask the place of purchase if your produce was recalled.
The CDC also stated, “When in doubt […] throw them out.”
Author’s Note: The Importance of Our Industry
Preventable tragedies like these (emphasis on preventable) serve as a painful yet necessary reminder of how imperative food testing is to our well-being.
The Parnell brothers and their executive accomplices had a profound responsibility to produce safe edibles and failed—remarkably and purposefully—to do so.
At Phenomenex, a manufacturer of instruments used to test food products, we take our job seriously. As one colleague stated, “When something goes right in this industry, no one bats an eye. If something were to go wrong, it could cost lives.”
This is our reality—a reality that may temporarily halt production, a reality that may lose companies a little profit, and a reality with which no one should tamper.