On September 21, Peanut Corporation of America’s (PCA) former CEO Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years behind bars, a virtual life prison term for the 61-year-old, for his role in the 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak related to peanuts that killed nine and sickened hundreds. Stewart was convicted of felony fraud, conspiracy, and knowingly allowing contaminated food to be sold in interstate commerce.
In addition, PCA peanut broker and Stewart’s brother Michael received a 20-year term and quality assurance manager Mary Wilkerson received five years in a federal women’s prison.
This sentencing is one of the harshest punishments concerning a foodborne illness outbreak in U.S. history and is seen as a turning point on how the justice system will now be holding companies responsibility on the safety of the nation’s food supply.
“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,” warns Dr. Stephen Ostroff, FDA acting commissioner.
“The momentous decision by the jury and judge marks a milestone in food safety history,” says Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO for the nonprofit STOP Foodborne Illness organization. “These individuals are accountable for causing illness and death from a foodborne illness related to their product, and there are consequences.”
Earlier in the month, the U.S. FDA finalized two FSMA rules for preventative controls for human and animal food to further help avoid deadly outbreaks like these from occurring in the future. (The remaining FSMA rules are expected to be finalized in 2016.)
However, many in the industry are quick to point out that these rules will result in improvements in public health only if the FDA has sufficient funding to fully implement them—there’s concern that House and Senate appropriations bills for FY2016 fall short of what is actually needed to make this happen.
“FSMA represents a comprehensive system of preventative measures so it is essential that FDA be appropriately resourced to effectively implement and enforce all of the food safety mandates set forth in the law,” according to a statement by the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
If FSMA’s funding is decreased, then will the law’s impact on saving lives also be diminished?