In the first federal criminal prosecution of U. S. food processors for food poisoning, 3 executives of the Peanut Corporation of America were convicted on September 19, 2014 of multiple counts that could result in decades of federal imprisonment.
You might recall that in 2008-2009 there was an outbreak in the U. S. of salmonella poisoning from tainted food. By the time federal officials traced the salmonella back to Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, Georgia in January 2009, 714 people in 43 states were afflicted. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was able to determine that nine people died after eating tainted peanut butter but could not definitely determine that salmonella caused the deaths. In addition, an uncounted number of animals were believed poisoned by salmonella-tainted products from Peanut Corporation, which shipped packaged crackers with peanut butter, separate peanut butter, pet food and other products to numerous clients, including Kellogg.
During a thorough investigation, federal investigators discovered a leaky roof, cockroaches, and rodent evidence at the plant, as well as falsified test results for salmonella and e-mails/records proving deliberate shipments of salmonella-tainted food to customers. Investigators concluded that the company’s owner, Stewart Parnell, its food broker, Michael Parnell, the plant’s quality control manager, Mary Wilkerson, and 2 plant managers all deliberately dropped safety standards in order to meet shipping deadlines. Consequently, all were criminally charged in connection with the salmonella outbreak. Though authorities believed deaths were attributable to the outbreak, the high standards of proof in criminal proceedings led them to file charges for defrauding the public rather than for killing some of them.
The 2 plant managers pleaded guilty for their parts in the scandal; however, the 2 Stewart brothers and Ms. Wilkerson were tried in federal court. At trial, the trio attempted to lay blame on the 2 former plant managers who already pleaded guilty. After a 7-week trial, all 3 were convicted of various offenses. Owner Stewart Parnell garnered the most convictions, including conspiracy, wire fraud, falsifying the results of lab tests designed to detect salmonella and obstruction of justice, and could be sentenced to more than 30 years imprisonment. Food Broker, Michael Parnell was convicted of falsifying lab tests, and other charges in the fraud and conspiracy scheme, and could be sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. Plant Quality Control Manager, Mary Wilkerson was convicted of obstruction of justice for withholding information from investigators and faces a sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment.
Sentencing is anticipated for late 2014 or early 2015. Meanwhile, the Parnell brothers remain free on bail after posting bond. Wilkerson also remains free on an unsecured $25,000 bond.
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