- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2015

Is it life imprisonment for industrial contamination? Or life imprisonment for nine deaths?

Federal officials have recommended that a Georgia food-plant executive whose plants knowingly sold tainted peanut butter receive that punishment.

Lawyers on both sides of the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) case agree that Stewart Parnell getting such a sentence would be “unprecedented” — despite their differences over whether that would be just.

“In the last 3 to 4 years, all of a sudden, the Justice Department decided it’ll have to enforce the law,” said Theodore Labuza, professor of food science and engineering at the University of Minnesota. “It’s saying to the food industry, ‘you’ve got to do a better job.’”

Parnell, former PCA owner, was found guilty last year on 71 counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes growing out of a 2008-09 salmonella outbreak tied to its products.



PCA sold truckloads worth of contaminated peanut butter from its southwest Georgia plant after the salmonella had been found in the factory. Nine people died and more than 700 were made ill by the tainted food.

In a court filing first reported by the Associated Press and confirmed by Parnell’s legal team Thursday, the U.S. Probation Office recommended that Parnell receive a life sentence when Judge Louis Sands in Albany, Ga., imposes the punishment Sept. 21.

The estimated $144 million in economic losses and the 700-plus illnesses and deaths are, according to the pre-sentence report, such strong aggravating factors that it “results in a life sentence Guidelines range” with no lower options.

“That recommendation is truly absurd,” attorney Ken Hodges told the AP in Georgia. “We hope the judge will see that Stewart Parnell never meant to hurt anyone. He ate the peanut butter himself. He fed it to his children and to his grandchildren.”

But Mr. Labuza called the case “egregious” — emphasizing evidence tampering after the fact — and said that while a life sentence may seem unprecedented, the facts and circumstances are unprecedented too.

Parnell “knew that his product was tainted and he said ‘ship it, because we need the money,’” he told The Washington Times in an interview. “The people at the top are responsible … they can be charged with felonies.”

Bill Marler, a lawyer for victims in the case, spoke similarly, telling AP that “life in prison, especially in a food case, it’s frankly unprecedented … but the case itself, on a factual basis, is unprecedented.”

The involvement of Parnell’s brother as a food broker also made tracing the outbreak much tougher than in other cases, Mr. Labuza noted. 

The company didn’t sell any peanut butter to consumers, but rather manufactured it and then sold it through brokers, which meant the contamination spread throughout the entire food supply, including products such as cookies and crackers that merely use peanut butter as an ingredient.

Mr. Labuza said this made the peanut-butter recall the biggest in American history by some measures, involving more than 350 companies and 3,000 stock-keeping units.

Recommendations in pre-sentence reports and the sentencing formulas they follow are not binding on the sentencing judges in federal cases, but they generally take them into account. Prosecutors also have not said whether they would ask the judge to impose that life sentence, though they did say the figures were correctly calculated.

Nevertheless, the Parnell defense team disputes the aggravating-factor figures, saying they are “based on speculative, incomplete, and untrustworthy information,” much of which was not corroborated during the trial.

Still, Mr. Labuza said, the Parnell case, even if it leads to a life sentence, should not lead people to expect prisons to be filling up with big-firm CEOs. Such companies have legal departments devoted to knowing what is and isn’t allowed.

In more jeopardy, he said, are “small companies, or firms that get bought out by foreign conglomerates” that then blithely cut the food-safety budget. He cited the Castleberry’s Foods case — in which eight people contracted botulism and one died from eating the company’s hot dog chili sauce — as an example of the latter.

In addition, he noted that even most of the other major recent high-profile food recalls that resulted in criminal sentences — he cited the Jensen Farms cantaloupes in Colorado and the Quality eggs recall in Iowa — were “not as egregious” as the Georgia case and involved risky actions and/or sloppiness more than they did malice.

Nevertheless, food science is now so much better than in the past that there also is less excuse for contamination outbreaks. For example, Mr. Labuza, who is 74, noted that when he was being trained in the field, the belief was that no pathogen can grow in a refrigerated environment. 

This is now known not to be the case — the ice cream contamination at Blue Bell Creameries being one example of one — “but only because we didn’t know listeria was a pathogen,” he said.

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