More than one drought may be over in the heartland of America. Yes, there’s been enough snow and rain to drastically reduce the drought’s footprint on the land of the Southeast and West. But there is also a sign another drought may have ended, that’s the one where food industry executives skate after they’ve poisoned people by knowingly shipping adulterated products.
Sure, from time to time, corporations have pleaded guilty to some misdemeanors and paid fines in criminal courts. That’s what Odwalla Inc. did before Coca-Cola acquired it, after its apple juice killed a child and Sara Lee did after its hotdogs killed 15. We could cite other examples.
But the days of misdemeanor plea, fine, and sometimes even a joint press release with the government and food company all expressing their deep regrets may be over. Food industry executives may want to listen up. If you knowingly are taking actions that may result in someone’s’ poisoning or death, your butt, not just the shareholders’ money, may be on the line.
We’ve thought for some time that the 76-count federal criminal indictment against four former executives of the defunct Peanut Corporation of America is a game-changer. That’s why Food Safety News is committed to covering the judicial proceedings against the four.
We do not know how this is going to come out. Stewart Parnell, his brother Michael, and the two other former peanut processing plant managers are, under the law, all presumed innocent until a jury says otherwise.
But from the stands, we are able to factually report that what the government is doing with the criminal case has profound implications for the food industry. Its 52-page indictment presents a strong case against the PCA four, and Daniel Kilgore– a fifth former executive who has already pleaded guilty to the charges. He stands ready to testify for the government in the jury trial expected to get under way in October.
He’s long had good defense attorneys working for him, but it is doubtful Parnell knew how heavy the load was going to be until it dropped on him. In opposing Parnell’s request for return of his U.S. Passport, government attorneys speculated that if the Virginian “expected to be charged it is highly likely he believed he would only be charged with misdemeanor violations…”
“Historically, criminal prosecutions for shipment of adulterated food were almost always charged as misdemeanors,” the U.S. attorneys wrote. “The defendant Stewart Parnell did not anticipate a 76 felony count indictment.” If these same attorneys persuade an Albany, GA jury, Parnell’s maximum sentence would be 754 years in prison and $17 million in fines.
Under the federal sentencing guidelines that will take Parnell’s age of 58 years and other factors into account, the man many victims and their survivors blame for nine deaths and 700 illnesses in the 2008-09 Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak could get off with a just a life sentence.
So let’s review. Old system was the corporation pleading guilty to a misdemeanor or two and paying a corporate fine. The new system involves felony charges and hard time in prison.
Call me old fashioned, but I still think the felony charges and hard time in prison will be a more effective disincentive for shipping poisons that can injure and kill people, who are usually children or senior citizens. There are many miles to go before we know if this new approach by federal prosecutors will work. They got a complex case going, one that in some respect is looking down on PCA from 30,000 feet saying: “what was really going on here?”
Food industry executives who do not sit up and take notice will be doing so at their own peril because you never know how quickly you can go from sitting on dry ground to being in dire need of rescue from the flood waters.
© Food Safety News