It has been over a year since the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) sickened hundreds and killed 9 with Salmonella-tainted peanuts. Many victims and their families are growing antsy. Millions of dollars have been awarded in civil suits, but those affected will not settle until the people responsible are criminally prosecuted.
Calls for a criminal investigation came after internal emails among the highest-ranking PCA employees demonstrated a flagrant degree of negligence. In February 2009, a hearing conducted by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations exposed a string of emails from Stewart Parnell, the president of PCA, to his plant manager that suggested Parnell knowingly shipped contaminated peanuts to sellers across the country.
“Turn them loose,” said one email from Parnell to his plant manager. The e-mail referred to products that once were deemed contaminated with Salmonella but were cleared in a questionable second test.
Another email released by the House panel showed Parnell ordering products identified as contaminated with Salmonella to be shipped and quoted his complaints that tests discovering contaminated peanuts were “costing us huge $$$$$.”
The House panel grilled Parnell during the hearing, demanding explanations. But Parnell refused, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination: “I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protection afforded to me under the United States Constitution.”
A federal criminal investigation is currently pending against Parnell, but no criminal convictions have been issued. The hundreds of sickened people want him held accountable for his actions.
“As someone who testified in front of the House subcommittee last February, I saw the emails that Parnell had sent out,” said Lou Tousignant, whose father, Clifford Tousignant, died from eating the tainted product. “I saw that he knowingly shipped contaminated product to high-risk areas (nursing homes and schools). If there can be a precedent of criminal charges for those that knowingly commit an act that can cause harm to society, maybe someone like Parnell would think twice before shipping contaminated products that sickened hundreds and killed 9 people, including my father.”
Larry Andrew, whose wife was severely sickened by the Salmonella outbreak, agreed.
“We think his actions were akin to a personal invasion of our home to assault Karen,” he said. “He killed people! If a similar methodology were to be undertaken by a cell of terrorists, the country would be outraged and the federal government would immediately arrest and prosecute the perpetrators.”
Bill Marler, the Seattle-based attorney who is representing many of the victims, is similarly incredulous. “In 17 years of litigating every major foodborne illness outbreak in the U.S., I have not seen a clearer situation that demanded criminal prosecution,” he said. “If not this case, when?”
Even if Parnell and his plant manager were convicted, however, the punishment would hardly be stiff. According to CNN, Parnell would face a maximum of 1 year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
To many, this highlights a fundamental problem with the government’s food safety network.
In an effort to address this, the House introduced a food safety bill in early 2009 that would overhaul the entire system. The legislation focuses on prevention rather than reaction, requiring food processors to enact safety plans and increasing inspections of plants.
Despite measures taken, Earlene Carter, whose mother tragically died from a Salmonella infection, said she won’t be satisfied until Stewart Parnell is behind bars. Mr. Parnell “…should face the consumers under criminal law–not civil–to answer for the crimes he committed. After depriving families of their loved ones (who are gone to soon), he should not be shielded. This should never happen again.”