Stewart Parnell’s testimony in front of the Congressional Subcommittee on Oversight and Intelligence in February 2009 had many industry insiders and legislators gearing up for what they believed could be the most high-profile tainted food prosecution of all time.
Instead, criminal investigations into Peanut Corporation of American (PCA) and its top executives, including former president and CEO Parnell, have produced no charges.
The criminal inquiry began when federal investigators said Parnell knowingly shipped Salmonella-contaminated foods that sickened hundreds and may have killed 9 in 2008 and 2009.
On January 20, 2009, the US Department of Justice and the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations announced their intention to conduct a criminal investigation into PCA and the company’s top executives.
The public became aware of the investigation when a hearing held by the Oversight and Intelligence Subcommittee on February 11 revealed the extent of Parnell’s indiscretions. A string of emails from Parnell to his employees, released by House investigators, showed a profit-hungry man who instructed his employees to ship out peanut products despite reports of Salmonella contamination.
The public outcry following the hearing was overwhelming. Parnell was vilified from local grocery stores to Capitol Hill, with both victims and public figures demanding legal action. The Governor of Georgia and even members of Congress made statements calling for possible criminal charges.
“Based on my review of the evidence, there should be a criminal prosecution here,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D – MN), a former prosecutor. If Parnell is charged and found guilty, she said, “I would hope that he would go to jail.”
Although food safety watchdogs have long argued that the FDA doesn’t usually pursue criminal charges in food contamination cases, experts seemed convinced in Parnell’s case.
“I am no attorney,” said Mike Doyle, a University of Georgia food safety scientist. “But the evidence appears to be a smoking gun. It appears that Mr. Parnell knowingly ordered shipment of Salmonella-contaminated product.”
“In my 17 years of litigating food-borne illness outbreaks in the U.S., I have not seen a clearer situation that demanded criminal prosecution,” said food safety lawyer Bill Marler. “The question is not whether there will be charges, but what they will charge him with.”
According to food safety attorneys, prosecutors have plenty of options.
“Anytime you’ve got interstate commerce, those are the buzz words for federal prosecution,” said Kent Alexander, a former U.S. attorney in Atlanta who is now general counsel at Emory University. “And prosecutors can be very creative in alleging schemes involving interstate commerce.
Alex Ferguson, an attorney working with Marler, shared the case for prosecution with Food Safety News (FSN).
“It is not as if there are no laws applicable to this situation. Under federal law (1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act), it is a felony to adulterate or misbrand food and put it into interstate commerce,” he said. “A person who commits such an act ‘with the intent to defraud or mislead’ is guilty of a felony punishable by three years imprisonment.”
“Under the same federal law, a person may be convicted of a misdemeanor without a showing by the prosecution of fraudulent intent, or even a showing of knowing or willful conduct. Instead, a person may be convicted if he or she held a position of responsibility or authority in a firm such that the person could have prevented the violation. Convictions under the misdemeanor provisions are punishable by up to one year imprisonment or a $1,000 fine.”
In the opinion of experts, the case for criminal prosecution is strong.
Why has the investigation taken so long?
Federal agencies ranging from the FBI to FDA declined to comment, but the District Court in Albany, Georgia confirmed that none of the PCA executives have been indicted. Despite the overwhelming evidence against the former peanut giant, it appears that federal agencies have yet to bring any official charges.
In an attempt to discover why, Food Safety News spoke to Pete Peterman, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. In order to conduct a fair investigation, he said, he could not confirm or deny a pending criminal case against Parnell, but investigations of this nature are often long and drawn out.
“These types of complex cases call for extensive investigation beforehand,” he said, which “can often take more than a year.”
However, many signs indicate the criminal case has stalled. Ranking Congressmen who demanded justice for the Salmonella victims during the House Congressional hearing in February have been locked out of the investigation. The press offices of Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA), Bart Stupak (D-MI), and Greg Walden (R-OR) told Food Safety News that their offices have received no updates since the initial hearing last February.
Moreover, W. William Gust, one of Mr. Parnell’s attorneys, recently told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that investigators have not contacted Parnell in about six months.
The lack of movement has the families of many victims restless and angry. Earlene Carter, whose mother tragically died from a Salmonella infection, said she won’t be satisfied until Stewart Parnell is behind bars.
“He should face the consumers under criminal law–not civil–to answer for the crimes he committed,” she said. “After depriving families of their loved ones–who are gone too soon–he should not be shielded. This should never happen again.”