ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — A federal jury convicted the owner of a peanut plant and two others Friday in a salmonella outbreak that prompted one of the largest U.S. food recalls ever, sickened hundreds across the country and was linked to several deaths.
Experts say the seven-week trial in Albany, Georgia, marked the first time corporate executives and plant workers were tried in a food poisoning case.
Former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was convicted on numerous counts including conspiracy, wire fraud and obstruction of justice related to shipping tainted peanut butter to customers and faking results of lab tests intended to screen for salmonella. His brother, Michael Parnell, was also found guilty on multiple charges related to the false lab results, but was acquitted of actually shipping salmonella-tainted food.
The jury also found Mary Wilkerson, the plant’s quality assurance manager, guilty of obstruction of justice for hiding information about the plant’s salmonella problems from investigator. But Wilkerson was acquitted on one of two obstruction counts she faced.
The case has been closely followed by the food industry and could rattle some executives, said Bill Marler, an attorney who has represented victims of food-borne illnesses for two decades, including many who got sick after eating Peanut Corporation’s food.
“I think the fact that these guys were charged with felonies and have now been convicted of felonies and obviously are going to face some substantial potential for jail time and fines, I think, sends a pretty strong message to the food industry that U.S. attorneys are willing to charge people with crimes,” Marler said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Dasher told the judge he estimates the Parnell brothers will face 27 to 33 years in prison.
“Given the ages of the defendants, a sentence amounting to that … would in effect be a life sentence,” Dasher said.
He asked the judge to have the Parnells jailed pending a later sentencing, but the judge chose to let them remain free on bond. Both Parnells took the witness stand briefly to assure the judge they wouldn’t try flee. There was no request to jail Wilkerson before she’s sentenced.
The Parnell brothers shipped tainted peanuts and peanut butter five years ago and covered up lab tests showing positive results for salmonella, prosecutors said. Peanut Corporation’s products were used as ingredients in crackers and other snacks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 714 people in 46 states were infected and nine people died — three in Minnesota, two in Ohio, two in Virginia, one in Idaho and one in North Carolina.
“We respect the jury’s work and the jury system, but we believe this was the wrong result,” said Tom Bondurant, Stewart Parnell’s lead attorney. “We’ll continue to fight for Stewart at sentencing and in an appeal.”
The company’s plant in Blakely was shut down after being identified as the origin point of the salmonella outbreak in 2009. Peanut Corporation has since gone bankrupt. Federal inspectors also found roof leaks, evidence of bugs and rodents, and a peanut roaster that workers failed to ensure was heated to the proper temperature to kill salmonella. Investigators say they also uncovered a system the plant used to fake microbiological test results required by customers so the company could conceal positive lab tests for salmonella contamination.
Michael Parnell was in charge of selling tanker trucks filled with peanut paste to Kellogg’s, which required 40,000 pounds of paste from Peanut Corporation twice a week. Prosecutors said the Parnell brothers used fake lab results so that wait times for real tests wouldn’t slow down their hectic shipping schedule.
After being told a shipment faced delay while waiting on lab results, Stewart Parnell wrote an email referenced several times by prosecutors in the case that read: “Just ship it. I cannot afford to (lose) another customer.”
Stacks of emails, shipping records, lab test reports and other documents were introduced as evidence by prosecutors. Two former plant managers — Sammy Lightsey and Danny Kilgore — testified against their former boss and his co-defendants as part of a plea deal reached with prosecutors.
Lightsey testified that he once confronted Michael Parnell about the fake lab tests but allowed the practice to continue after he was told to back down.
“In my mind, I wasn’t intentionally hurting anyone,” Lightsey testified last month.
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