Poisoned Peanuts: Verdict Sends Strong Message to Food Company Executives

The guilty verdicts handed down on Sept. 19 in the unprecedented federal criminal case against senior officials of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) should send a strong message to food company executives – you can and will be held criminally responsible for deliberately risking the health and safety of the American public for the sake of profits.

The case stems from the 2008 national outbreak of Salmonella poisoning from contaminated peanuts and peanut products that were traced to PCA. A subsequent inspection of PCA production plants in Georgia and Texas by Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors found roaches, rats, mold, dirt, bird droppings, and accumulated grease in the plants, among other problems that contributed to the contamination.

At least nine people died and over 700 people were sickened, some critically, from eating contaminated food, which included Kellogg products. Based on previous studies of the number of unreported foodborne illnesses, the total number of unreported cases likely exceeded 22,000. PCA ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and a $12 million compensation fund was established to settle a class action lawsuit.

PCA President Stewart Parnell and his brother Michael were originally indicted in February 2013 on 76 counts of criminal conduct, including conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, and the introduction of misbranded food into interstate commerce. Stewart Parnell and former PCA quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson were also indicted for obstruction of justice for lying to FDA investigators.

Ultimately, a federal jury found Stewart Parnell guilty on 67 felony counts, Michael Parnell guilty on 30 counts, and Wilkerson guilty on one of the two obstruction of justice counts brought against her. Two former PCA plant managers who had previously pleaded guilty to several criminal charges testified against the Parnell brothers and Wilkerson at the trial. None of the defendants was charged with causing any actual illnesses or deaths due to the technical and legal hurdles in proving that the deaths and illnesses were directly due to the contaminated products. 

The PCA case is one of the most influential food contamination cases in history in terms of the precedent-setting criminal charges brought against the corporate executives involved. It was also a key event that contributed to Congress passing the Food Safety Modernization Act in late 2010. The verdict should send a strong message to food corporation executives who recklessly disregard their responsibilities for ensuring our food is safe to eat that they will be held criminally responsible as individuals for their actions.

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