The guilty verdicts and long prison terms for the top executives at the now defunct Peanut Corporation of American (PCA) for their roles in the Salmonella outbreak in 2008-2009 mark an historic milestone in food safety, according to industry observers and those involved in food safety efforts who applaud a case that resulted in the harshest sentences to date for corporate executives held responsible for causing foodborne illness.
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Former PCA CEO Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison; his brother Michael Parnell, a former broker at PCA, to 20 years; and the former quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson to five years. Two other executives, Samuel Lightsey and Daniel Kilgorefound, guilty of charges in the case were sentenced on Oct. 1, 2015 to three and six years in federal prison, respectively.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the top executives were found guilty of defrauding their customers, jeopardizing the quality and purity of their peanut products, misleading customers about the presence of Salmonella in their products, fabricating certificates of analysis that accompanied shipments of the peanut products, and multiple other charges. Nine people died and more than 700 people were sickened in 47 states because of the contaminated products. Wilkerson was found guilty of one count of obstruction.
Dr. Stephen Ostroff, FDA acting commissioner, says, “Americans expect and deserve the highest standards of food safety and integrity. 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.”
Darin Detwiler, senior policy coordinator at the nonprofit advocacy group STOP Foodborne Illness, says his group views this as “a landmark case. For years, businesses have been able to get away with these things and focus on profit,” Detwiler says. “The victims of this outbreak and other outbreaks should see this as a validation and a resolve and a hope that things will be get better in the bigger picture of food safety.”
Ben Pascal, of Invisible Sentinel, Inc., a company that develops and manufactures diagnostic tests to detect foodborne pathogens, says that his customers were not that shocked by the guilty verdicts or the length of jail time imposed by the judge. As a result of the Food Safety Modernization Act, his company has seen an increase in testing by groups that traditionally didn’t test as often, such as groups purchasing or distributing or reselling food.
“FSMA has increased awareness and mandated good practices across all groups involved in the food supply. Many companies understand the strong responsibility that they have to their customers and have well-defined pathogen reduction programs in place to ensure these harmful organisms never reach their customers’ plates,” Pascal says.