The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the salmonella-related convictions of Peanut Corp. of America exec Stewart Parnell and two others last week.
In 2009, a salmonella outbreak that sickened over 700 people was traced back to tainted products sent to market by the Peanut Corp. of America. The peanut products in question were processed in a facility located in rural southwest Georgia, but the reach of our industrial food system meant that people in 46 states put this food past their lips and lived to regret it. In 2014 and 2015, three executives then associated with the Peanut Corp. of America were tried, convicted, and sent to prison, two of them for at least 20 years. The three, chief executive Stewart Parnell, his brother and peanut broker Michael Parnell, and quality manager Mary Wilkerson appealed, but the convictions were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta last week.
During the original trial, the prosecution presented 45 witnesses and submitted over a thousand documents as evidence of egregious wrongdoing on the part of the Peanut Corp. of America. Former company employees testified that the Georgia processing plant was filthy. Federal inspectors turned up evidence of notable nastiness at the factory, including cockroaches, rats, mold growth, and bird droppings, as well as a leaky roof. It’s easy to imagine salmonella festering in roof water splashing around what was supposed to be a dry food processing facility.
During the jury trial, the government presented evidence that the salmonella was indeed festering. When Peanut Corp. of America sent samples of peanut paste to a lab for microbiological testing to make sure the products were safe to eat, according to evidence presented in court, some of the tests came back positive. Sometimes, they’d ship the product to market before the test results came back. Other times, Stewart Parnell directed the firm to keep retesting the samples until they obtained a negative result. And sometimes, they knowingly sent out salmonella-positive products anyway. In March 2007, Parnell emailed a plant manager the infamous order to “just ship it.”
With such a clear-cut case against the Parnells and Peanut Corp. of America, what made them think that an appeal would turn the tide in their favor? For one, possible jury misconduct.
The jury heard about the 700+ sick people, but the defendants moved to exclude evidence that connected the salmonella outbreak to nine deaths. In fact, the number of deaths was left out of the original trial. While some of the jurors may have heard the nine-death figure come up in casual comments or half-remembered news reports, the appellate court found that the jurors were unable to remember precise details and had not been prejudiced by hearing of any deaths involved with the outbreak. It turns out that of the nine alleged salmonella-related deaths, a few of them may have expired from other causes, as anonymous Parnell family member(s) seem to busily assert to multiple media outlets. However, the argument that the Parnell convictions were unwarranted because only six of the deaths could allegedly be connected to salmonella is weak. One death from poisoned industrial food is too many, and the deaths weren’t the crimes that convicted them, anyway.
In the end, the three appellate judges (appointed by Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Clinton) sent the Parnell brothers back to their well-earned prison cells. Stewart Parnell avoided the maximal punishment of 803 years in prison the first time around. However, being found guilty of several counts including fraudulently introducing misbranded and adulterated food into interstate commerce, wire fraud, and conspiracy garnered him 28 years in federal prison, which he will continue to serve (barring, of course, a favorable review of the decision). While one might question the fairness of sending Parnell to the pokey for the rest of his natural life, that’s only the case because, at age 63, he may not have that many years left. He may be sorry, but it’s a shame that during those six decades of freedom he recently finished enjoying, he apparently didn’t learn that knowingly sending salmonella-tainted food to market is wrong.