By April 2009, 714 people across 46 states had been diagnosed with salmonella. Nine people died from it or in connection to it. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that peanuts spread the disease. Specifically, the peanuts came from the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) in Georgia and Texas. This was not just a one-time mistake.
Salmonella is not a fun disease. Passed through contaminated food, salmonella causes upset stomach, cramping, diarrhea, fever, and pain. If the victim can keep down fluids, they will eventually recover. Sadly, for those with weaker immune systems, like children and older people, salmonella can prove deadly.
Peanut Corporation of America
It seems trouble started in PCA almost from the moment it changed hands in 2001. Stewart Parnell took over as President and Owner. Immediately things changed. Records and emails indicate that Parnell instructed one of his operations managers, Daniel Kilgore, to mix two different types of peanuts and send them to their customer, against the wishes of the customer. They also created false documents and sent out contaminated products.
For the next two years, Stewart Parnell and Daniel Kilgore sent out products without waiting for the results of testing. When necessary they created false Certificates of Analysis. These certificates stated that the product met the customers’ specifications, even though they had no idea. If the test returned as positive for salmonella or did not meet any other specifications, PCA just did not tell their customers.
Not only did they send out contaminated products, falsified documents, and lied to customers, their production and holding areas were gross. Their work areas had mold in holding coolers, water drips from cooling fans directly above the product, and a lack of a ventilation system. The unroasted and roasted peanuts sat next to each other. Also, they mixed and stored products close to salmonella bacteria.
Also, the company did not use proper cleaning procedures to ensure food safety. Still, PCA continued to assure customers that they rigorously tested for bacteria, cleaned, and tested their product. In fact, they did almost the exact opposite. The leaders of the company signed off on the poor quality of the company production areas. They mixed nuts breaking contracts and sent out products with false documents. They even sent out products known to be contaminated with salmonella. Also, they tried to hide it from their customers, insisting they had no issues.
Finally, it all caught up to them. In 2006 cases of salmonella began to rise across the United States prompting an investigation. By the end of 2008 investigators had isolated the problem to PCA. Then the FDA began to investigate them in 2009.
To cover their tracks PCA lied. When that did not work they finally recalled their product. Nothing helped as they had already given out contaminated peanuts that killed. Eventually, PCA had to file for bankruptcy.
Eventually, Stewart Parnell had to face a panel of U.S. Representatives. The panel would determine Parnell’s culpability in regards to giving out contaminated food. Parnell invoked the fifth amendment stating the right to not self-incriminate. He refused to answer any questions making him look more guilty. Though honestly, he probably had nothing truthful to say. The FDA had discovered the unsanitary conditions of his company and the fake certificates. They also had emails between him and others indicating his lack of care for quality and safety.
Trial and Conviction
About four years after discovery, Stewart Parnell, Vice President Michael Parnell, Operations Manager Samuel Lightsey, Operations Manager Daniel Kilgore, and Quality Assurance Mary Wilkerson faced charges. Stewart and Michael Parnell faced a 76-count indictment of charges that included the falsifying of documents and knowingly allowing contaminated food into the public. Mary Wilkerson faced a count of obstructing justice for lying about the positive results. Samuel Lightsey turned state’s witness and Daniel Kilgore pled guilty and agreed to be a witness for a reduced sentence.
At the end of the trial, Stewart Parnell received 28 years in prison. His brother Michael received 20 years. Both will have 3 years of supervision after release. As of this time, the brothers still continue in prison. All appeals up to now have failed. They have submitted another appeal claiming ineffective counsel. At this time no ruling has been given regarding this appeal.
Samuel Lightsey received less than three years before his release. Mary Wilkerson received 5 years with 2 years of supervision. Her release came in February of 2020 to start her supervision. Daniel Kilgore received a reduced sentence of 6 years in minimum security. He was released to a halfway house in April 2020 with the possibility of being released by December 19, 2020. No other news could be found regarding these people.
Conclusion of The Peanut Crime
Over 700 people became sick with salmonella, possibly nine deaths because one company refused to follow good practice. Not all foodborne pathogens can be eradicated. Still following good practices and the FDA guidelines help keep consumers safe. Then times like 2006-2008 with the salmonella do not happen and we can safely eat common foods.
The case signaled a change. Previously, CEOs and workers of food companies were not held liable for foodborne pathogens. The trial and conviction of Stewart Parnell changed that. It showed that CEOs and workers that know and willingly send out contaminated food are not safe. Now, they can be held liable for what happens. Hopefully, this helps other food companies to stay on the safe side of the law.
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