Since the sentencing of the Peanut Corporation of America criminal cases, some may be wondering if anything has really changed. The longest prison sentences ever handed out for food safety violations would, on the surface, appear to be a new bright line for food manufacturers. But, on closer look, maybe not. Food manufacturers have long known that they cannot be aware that their product is adulterated and ship it anyway. That line has not changed.
If we were talking about going beyond it, we would be talking about intentionally using food to poison people. Now that’s a rare one.
In 1984, followers of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned salad bars in The Dalles on the Columbia River in Oregon to keep people from voting in a local election. The event was hardly noticed outside Oregon until after 9/11, when the anti-terrorism community began studying the event. Two top lieutenants of the Bhagwan, one a nurse, were convicted of the intentional acts. Their pathogen of choice was Salmonella Typhimurium, the same bug that Parnell shipped in his peanut products.
The cultists were sentenced to 3-10 years, and each served about 28 months. Their actions made 751 people sick in the year’s largest outbreak, and while 45 were hospitalized, thankfully no one died.
In the current case, Stewart Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison because he shipped peanut products he knew to be contaminated. He was not intentionally out to harm anyone specifically, but he was guilty of showing a reckless disregard for life. Parnell shipped a contaminated product and then hoped like hell nothing bad would happen. His defense attorneys rightfully argued that Stewart Parnell did not want to hurt anyone. However, he crossed the line because he was taking risks with the lives of his consumers. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were sickened, and nine paid the ultimate price.
The way U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands saw it, the Parnells chose profit over people because they were greedy. They helped themselves instead of protecting consumers. Sands saw it as the very kind of behavior we cannot accept at a time when we must rely on others for where our food comes from. He did not need to go further — to the intention to hurt somebody — to justify sentencing Stewart Parnell to 28 years in prison and his peanut broker brother Michael to 20 years. (Mary Wilkerson, PCA’s former quality assurance manger, was sentenced to five years in prison for an obstruction of justice violation that occurred during the Parnell investigation.)
So, the bright line remained unchanged before, during, and after this case. The question still out there is whether evidence exists that a company knowingly put contaminated food into interstate commerce.
In the Peter Pan outbreak, which occurred almost two years before the PCA incident, the investigation has not been able to show that any Salmonella-contaminated product was knowingly sold. ConAgra, which manufactures that brand of peanut butter, insists that no such evidence exists.
ConAgra is going to plead to one strict liability misdemeanor count and pay a $11.2-million fine. Peter Pan peanut butter was recalled as the outbreak strain eventually spread to 44 states, infecting at least 700 people and sending about 20 percent of them to hospitals. The outbreak was due to a series of factors: a storm-damaged sugar silo allowing birds and insects to get inside, a leaky roof, and a peanut roaster not heating to an adequate temperature. But when the Salmonella hit the fan, Omaha-based ConAgra did a massive recall and they did not ship product they knew to be contaminated.
Turn back the clock 17 years when Chicago-based Sara Lee was the target of a criminal case involving hot dogs and ready-to-eat meats contaminated with Listeria. The products were produced by Bil Mar Foods of Grand Rapids, MI, which was then owned by Sara Lee. Twenty-one people died, and more than 35 million pounds of hotdogs and RTE meats were recalled.
A federal investigation, including calling a grand jury, followed the deadly 1998 outbreak, but in 2001, Sara Lee and the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Michigan made an announcement. The company pleaded guilty to one strict liability misdemeanor of letting adulterated food reach the market and paid a $200,000 fine. In addition, Sara Lee promised to give $3 million to Michigan State University for food safety research.
Sara Lee got a deal not much different than today’s ConAgra deal. And the reason it went no further is that, after three years of investigating, there was no evidence that Bil Mar knowingly shipped contaminated hotdogs and ready-to-eat meats.
As for the fine vs. university donation, the federal prosecutor said, “We wanted something that provided punishment, but we also wanted something that was good for the community.”
Many are saying that if it were not for those emails ordering the shipment of contaminated peanut products for which Stewart Parnell became so infamous, the PCA criminal case might have ended with strict liability misdemeanor prosecution and a fine. The case was unique because prosecutors knew from Day One that they could offer proof positive of what Stewart Parnell knew and what he did about it. All the other charges were built around that — counts of fraud, conspiracy, and batch-by-batch shipping of all that misbranded and adulterated peanut butter and peanut paste.
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