Former Peanut Company President Receives Largest Criminal Sentence in Food Safety Case; Two Others also Sentenced for Their Roles in Salmonella-Tainted Peanut Product Outbreak
Two former officials of and one broker for the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) were sentenced to prison today in Albany, Georgia, for their roles in a conspiracy to defraud their customers by shipping salmonella-positive peanut products before the results of microbiological testing were received and falsifying microbiological test results, the Department of Justice announced today.
Stewart Parnell, 61, of Lynchburg, Virginia, the former owner and president of PCA, was sentenced by Senior U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands of the Middle District of Georgia to serve 336 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. Michael Parnell, 56, of Midlothian, Virginia, who worked at P.P. Sales and was a food broker who worked on behalf of PCA, and is Stewart Parnell’s brother, was sentenced to serve 240 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. Mary Wilkerson, 41, of Edison, Georgia, who held various positions at PCA’s Blakely, Georgia, plant including receptionist, office manager and quality assurance manager, was sentenced to serve 60 months in prison to be followed by two years of supervised release. Judge Sands will issue a restitution order at a later date.
The Parnell brothers were convicted by a federal jury on Sept. 19, 2014, of multiple counts of conspiracy, mail and wire fraud and the sale of misbranded food. Stewart Parnell was also convicted of the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson were also convicted of obstruction of justice. Stewart Parnell was found guilty of all but one of the 68 felony counts with which he was charged on Feb. 15, 2013.
Expert evidence at trial showed that tainted food led to a salmonella outbreak in 2009 with more than 700 reported cases of salmonella poisoning in 46 states. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on epidemiological projections, that number translates to more than 22,000 total cases including nine deaths. The court found that the evidence presented at trial linked Stewart and Michael Parnell’s conduct, and specifically PCA’s contaminated peanut products, to the victims’ illnesses. The court also found that steps taken by the CDC to link reported illnesses to the specific strain of salmonella found in PCA products established that Stewart and Michael Parnell’s conduct was the proximate cause of the victims’ illnesses.
“Americans should be able to trust that the food we buy for ourselves and our families is safe,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart F. Delery. “The sentences handed down today to officials associated with the Peanut Corporation of America demonstrate the consequences for those whose criminal actions threaten that trust by introducing contaminated food into the marketplace. Our prosecution is just one more example of the forceful actions that the Department of Justice, with its agency partners, takes against any individual or company who compromises the safety of America’s food supply for financial gain.”
The government presented evidence at trial to establish that Stewart Parnell and Michael Parnell – with former PCA operations manager Samuel Lightsey, 50, and Daniel Kilgore, 46, both of Blakely – participated in several schemes by which they defrauded PCA customers and jeopardized the quality and purity of their peanut products. Specifically, the government presented evidence that the defendants misled customers about the presence of salmonella in their products. For example, the Parnells, Lightsey and Kilgore fabricated certificates of analysis (COAs) accompanying various shipments of peanut products. COAs are documents that summarize laboratory results, including test results concerning the presence or absence of pathogens in food. According to the evidence, on several occasions, the Parnells, Lightsey and Kilgore participated in a scheme to fabricate COAs that stated that the food at issue was free of pathogens when in fact there had been no testing of the food or tests had revealed the presence of pathogens.
The government also presented evidence that when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials visited PCA’s Blakely plant to investigate the outbreak, Stewart Parnell, Lightsey and Wilkerson gave untrue or misleading answers to questions posed by those officials.
“Today’s sentencing sends a powerful message to officials in the food industry that they stand in a special position of trust with the American consumer, and those who put profit above the welfare of their customers and knowingly sell contaminated food will face serious consequences,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to work aggressively with its partners to ensure that the American people are protected from food that is adulterated or misbranded within the meaning of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and pursue any person who fails to abide by the vital food safety protections in the law. We are dedicated to using all the tools that we have at our disposal to ensure that the processors and handlers of our food have the public’s safety forefront in their minds.”
“The sentence that was handed down today means that executives will no longer be able to hide behind the corporate veil,” said U.S. Attorney Michael J. Moore of the Middle District of Georgia. “The tragedy of this case is that at a peanut processing plant in Middle Georgia, protecting the public lost out to increasing of profits. This case was never just about shipping tainted peanut product; it was about making sure individual wrong doers were held accountable and the losses suffered by the victims and their families are never forgotten.”
Judge Sands took into account the fraud loss of PCA’s corporate victims when imposing today’s sentence. The court found that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson should be held accountable for more than $100 million but less than $200 million in losses, and Michael Parnell should be held accountable for more than $20 million but less than $50 million in losses. The court also found the government established evidence that Stewart Parnell and Mary Wilkerson should be accountable for harming more than 250 victims, and Michael Parnell should be accountable under federal sentencing guidelines for harming more than 50 victims. The court additionally found that the Parnells should have known that their actions presented a reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury.
“At the outset, the FBI saw this case as a serious breach of the public’s trust by a corporation and its officers who were expected to comply with the various regulations that would ensure their products safe for consumption,” said Special Agent in Charge J. Britt Johnson of FBI Atlanta Field Office. “They did not and lives were lost. The lengthy prison sentences handed down today in federal court clearly reflects the magnitude of the criminal conduct of these corporate officers and it is hoped that these sentences can provide some solace to those victims or their families who suffered so much from that criminal conduct and waited so long for justice.”
“Americans expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity,” said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, FDA Acting Commissioner. “Those who choose profits over the health and safety of U.S. consumers are now on notice that the FDA, working with the Department of Justice, will strive to use the full force of our justice system against them.”
Lightsey and Kilgore are scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday, Oct. 1, in Albany.
The case was prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Patrick Hearn and Mary M. Englehart of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch and Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Dasher of the Middle District of Georgia. Acting Associate Attorney General Delery, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mizer and U.S. Attorney Moore thank the investigative efforts of the FBI and FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations.